The evidence that may prove pro-Russian separatists shot down MH17


Journalists examine debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which crashed over eastern Ukraine last week. (Robert Ghement/European Pressphoto Agency)

In the astonishing, grim aftermath of the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, accusations are still flying. While Russia continues to pin the blame on Kiev, most others are becoming increasingly convinced that the plane was shot down by pro-Russian rebels who hold sway in parts of eastern Ukraine, where the plane's debris is still strewn across wheat fields near the town of Torez.

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the crash may be the fault of an escalation in hostilities against the rebels spurred by the government in Kiev; rebel leaders say they don't have the capabilities to shoot down the plane. But here's what's fueling the speculation.

The missile

The U.S. State Department, as well as Secretary of State John Kerry during TV interviews on Sunday, reiterated claims that the passenger airliner was likely to have been brought down by a SA-11 surface-to-air missile. A State Department statement published Saturday pointed to reports of Russia moving in a significant amount of heavy weaponry into eastern Ukraine over the past month, including a convoy of up to "150 vehicles including tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and multiple rocket launchers."

Ukrainian officials and news sites published images and footage allegedly showing the presence of at least one Buk SA-11 in a town near the crash site. The sophistication of the weaponry needed to bring down a plane at the height at which MH17 was flying makes it, Kerry said, "pretty clear that this is a system that was transferred from Russia into the hands of separatists." U.S. officials said Sunday that there was also evidence that the rebels had attempted to move the missile system back to Russia after the MH17 crash.

The separatists have downed about a dozen Ukrainian planes in recent months. Satellite imagery is said to show a plume of smoke that may have been the trail of the missile launched at MH17. The rebels' stubbornness in initially thwarting full access to the site and their shoddy treatment of the crash scene and the bodies of the victims seem to buttress suspicions that the separatists have cause to tamper with the evidence.

The intercepts

Ukrainian security services revealed a number of taped recordings thought to be conversations between pro-Russian rebels after the attack. The Washington Post has not been able to independently verify the authenticity of these recordings, but the State Department memo considered them authentic.

In one, supposedly between top rebel leader Igor Bezler and a man thought to be a Russian intelligence official, Bezler says flatly that separatists have shot down the plane. Another recording, allegedly of a conversation between two rebel officers with the aliases "Major" and "Greek," goes into details about the circumstances of the attack. One of the rebels expresses certainty that the plane just shot down by a regiment of rebel "Cossacks" was "100 percent a civilian aircraft." He also indicates the discovery of travel documents belonging to an Indonesian college student. There were 12 Indonesian nationals aboard MH17.

In a third recording, possibly involving Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Cossack commander, the rebels express amazement that the downed craft belonged to Malaysia Airlines. "That means they were carrying spies. They shouldn't be [expletive] flying. There is a war going on," says the voice attributed to Kozitsyn.

Social media

Some rebel fighters reported shooting down a plane in the Donetsk region on Thursday, before allegedly deleting the posts when it appeared that the aircraft was a civilian jet carrying nearly 300 people. On a Russian social media page, Igor Strelkov, the acting defense minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, announced the downing of "an An-26 [a military transport plane] near Torez," alongside a video of the "bird" falling, according to the AFP.

The official Twitter account of the Donetsk People's Republic had earlier announced seizing Buk surface-to-air missile systems from a Ukrainian regiment. That tweet was deleted after the crash of MH17.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the pro-Russian rebel’s control of the Flight MH17 crash site is like “leaving criminals in control of a crime scene.” The Ukrainian rebels have been accused of withholding evidence that may prove who shot down the airliner. (Reuters)
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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