Fact Sheet: What Early Evidence Says About MH17
July 18, 2014
by Daisy Sindelar
International officials initially called the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 a crash. Now they're saying the passenger jet was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. Kyiv is blaming Russia and the pro-Moscow separatists. Russia is blaming the Ukrainians. We look at the available evidence.
1) What kind of missile was it and where did it come from?
-- Ukraine and Russia appear to be in agreement about one thing: the type of missile used to shoot down the plane. Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko and the Russian Defense Ministry have both said it was an SA-11 Buk missile, which is vehicle-mounted and has a range of up to 28 kilometers. Each missile carries a high-explosive warhead.
-- Military analysts say MANPADS shoulder-fired missiles -- which are known to be in the separatists' arsenal and have already been used to down several Ukrainian military planes over the rebel-held area in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- would not have the range to reach commercial aircraft like MH17, which was flying at a cruising altitude of 10,000 meters. This leaves only the Buk missile and S-300 missiles as available weapons for high-altitude targets. So far attention has focused almost exclusively on the SA-11.
-- Buk missiles are Russian-made and are part of the official arsenal of both the Ukrainian and Russian militaries. The Kremlin strenuously argues that it has not armed the rebels at any point. Russian state media, however, reported as early as June 28 that separatists in eastern Ukraine claimed to have acquired their own Buk systems.
-- At roughly the same time, the self-proclaimed separatist 'Donetsk People's Republic' claimed on Twitter to have a Buk missile launcher. The post was removed following the crash of Flight MH17.
-- 'Ukrayinska pravda' has published photographs, taken on July 17, showing a rebel military column, including a Buk missile launcher, moving toward the Dmytrivka border checkpoint within the rebel-held area in the Donetsk region, a territory Ukraine's military -- and any possible missile-launchers of its own -- would not have been able to access.
2) If everyone has the missile, who could have fired it?
-- Despite having Buk missile systems at their disposal, there is no apparent reason why Ukraine would use them, as the separatists, until now, have not claimed having any military aircraft in their possession.
-- Rebel commander Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, a suspected Russian military intelligence officer, on July 17 appeared to claim responsibility for the shooting -- albeit without realizing that the downed plane was not a Ukrainian cargo craft but an international passenger jet.
-- At 5:50 p.m. Moscow time, shortly before reports surfaced that Flight MH17 had crashed, Girkin posted a dispatch on the VKontakte networking site saying, 'In the area of Torez, we have just shot down an AN-26 airplane' -- an Antonov military transport plane. The dispatch added, 'We warned them -- don't fly 'in our sky.'' ITAR-TASS and Vzglyad.ru quickly picked up the dispatch, citing not Girkin but an 'eyewitness.' Once the identity of the plane had been established, the VKontakte post was removed and replaced by a disclaimer saying the post erroneously claimed to be citing Girkin directly, when he in fact was only parroting eyewitness reports.
-- Ukrainian officials also released audio recordings of what they said were tapped phone conversations between pro-Russian rebels and Russian officers following the crash. In one, a rebel commander, Igor Bezler, is heard saying, 'We've just shot down a plane.' In another, a rebel says 'Chernukhino guys' -- a reference to Cossack militiamen based in the village of Chernukhino -- was responsible for shooting down the plane. He adds, 'In short, crap, it was a civilian plane,' noting with palpable alarm that one of the first dead bodies at the crash site had been identified as an Indonesian student. This lends weight to arguments that the missile strike was accidental.
-- In a conflict where disinformation has become the norm, neither the videos nor the Girkin post can be verified with any finality. But suspicion of rebel involvement is also bolstered by separatist claims they had shot down a Ukrainian SU-27 fighter on July 16 and a Ukrainian AN-26 two days earlier. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said one of the jets was hit by a portable surface-to-air missile, not a MANPADS.
Copyright (c) 2014. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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