New Delhi, July 18: India will not join a growing chorus of major nations pointing the finger of culpability for alleged downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine at Russian President Vladimir Putin, aided in part by the absence of any Indian casualties.
Senior foreign ministry officials said India had decided that it would not support any fresh sanctions or accusations against Russia, the confirmation coming on a day several of its western allies made it clear they held Moscow responsible for the crash.
The decision was taken after a series of meetings today, including at least two involving Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the officials said.
“We will not take stabs at our friends,” an official aware of the meetings said, referring to Russia, a nation Modi described just this week as “India’s best friend”. Modi and Putin met on the margins of the BRICS summit in Brazil’s Fortaleza.
India’s only official statement on the crash came from Modi, who wrote to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte expressing condolences. Modi also wrote that he hopes “the circumstances of the disaster are established quickly and that such tragedies are prevented”.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Vice-President Joe Biden specifically named Russia and rebels it backs as likely responsible for the crash of MH-17. At an emergency UN Security Council meeting, France too criticised Russia.
But Indian officials pointed to what they described as more measured responses from some of the other nations that had citizens on board the plane, believed by most experts to have been shot down by a surface-to-air missile in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on Thursday.
Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands, the nation which lost most citizens — 192 of the 298 people — stressed the need for an international probe, but refrained from accusing either Ukraine or Russia.
“Very much is still unclear,” Rutte said, as his government released a separate statement asking “all those involved to provide full and immediate co-operation”. Putin had called Rutte last evening to offer condolences.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called the act of shooting down the plane, if proven, a “violation of international law, and the laws of war”. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also dubbed the downing of the plane, if established, a crime. But neither Razak nor Yudhoyono indicated they were blaming Russia yet.
US President Barack Obama, while accusing Russia of supporting rebels in Ukraine, accepted that “we do not know exactly what happened” and cautioned against moving “ahead of the facts”.
MH-17 carried 12 Indonesians and 44 Malaysians — including 15 crew members — according to Malaysia Airlines. The others include 28 from Australia, 10 from the UK, four each from Germany and Belgium, three from the Philippines, and one each from Canada and New Zealand. One of these passengers — it is unclear which one — also holds a dual citizenship in the US. The airline said it had not confirmed the nationality of three passengers.
In Delhi, officials said Malaysia had, however, told them they were confident none of the yet-to-be-identified passengers on the plane were from India.
“When nations that have lost citizens can take an objective view, there’s no reason for us to even contemplate a strong statement at this stage — that is part of the reasoning,” an official said.
The official accepted, however, that the loss of Indian lives in an apparent missile-triggered air crash would have made it harder for India to not join other nations in pressuring Russia.
India had similarly chosen silence as its diplomatic posture when Russian-backed troops invaded the Crimean peninsula that belonged to Ukraine earlier this year.