The wreckage of the crashed jet. (Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)
In the hours after a Malaysia Airlines plane crashed in eastern Ukraine, the only thing immediately clear was that nearly 300 people had died. Beyond that, there was confusion, as groups and officials began making claims and counterclaims, accusations and rebuttals, with no unequivocal answers as to who was responsible for shooting down the Boeing 777.
The arguments began almost immediately, as the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian separatist rebels in Ukraine quickly blamed each other for the crashing of Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. But as comments were posted on social media sites and taken down, and as audio recordings were produced and fingers pointed, things only became more and more murky.
U.S. intelligence officials confirmed Thursday that the plane was taken down by a surface-to-air missile. But analysts were still scrambling to determine who actually fired the missile.
An official with the Ukrainian government quickly claimed that pro-Russian rebels used a missile system to shoot down the plane. Anton Herashenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, wrote on Facebook that a Buk anti-aircraft missile system — which he said was provided to the rebels by Russian President Vladimir Putin — shot down the plane in an area held by pro-Russian rebels.
Like Herashenko, Putin, in televised remarks, also blamed the rebels for the crash. But they denied responsibility and blamed the Ukrainian government, arguing that they lacked the capabilities to shoot down a commercial airliner.
“The plane was shot down by the Ukrainian side,” said Serhiy Kavtaradze, a member of the rebels’ security council, according to Interfax. “We simply do not have such air defense systems.”
Kavtaradze said the rebels have shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles with “a firing range of only 3,000 to 4,000 meters” — about 10,000 to 13,000 feet — and that passenger jets fly at much higher altitudes.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko denied that the government shot down the plane, saying that Ukraine’s armed forces “did not take action against any airborne targets,” according to the Associated Press.
While rebels in eastern Ukraine denied having the rocket launcher needed for such an attack, journalists with the Associated Press had reported seeing a similar weapon in this region earlier in the day. The Buk missile system is capable of reaching a plane expected to be flying between 33,000 and 37,000 feet.
And in a conversation between President Obama and Putin on Thursday morning discussing recent U.S. sanctions against Russia, Obama noted “extensive evidence that Russia is significantly increasing the provision of heavy weapons to separatists in Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement.
Adding to the confusion, the Ukraine Security Service later released a recording of what it claimed were intercepted phone calls capturing pro-Russian separatists discussing shooting down a plane. The Washington Post could not independently verify the recording or any of the individuals on it. (Three Russian language speakers working for The Washington Post have verified the English translation used here.)
The recording appears to be a composite of three separate conversations; at one point, a voice on the recording identified by the Ukrainian intelligence agency says either “we have just shot down a plane” or “they have just downed the plane.” In another portion of the recording, one voice describes seeing “lots of corpses of women and children” on the ground.
“They say on TV it’s an AN-26 transport plane, but they say it’s written Malaysia Airlines on the plane,” the voice said. “What was it doing on Ukraine’s territory?”
Another posting that appeared to comment on the plane appeared on a social media site before being shot down. Not long after the plane went down, a social media page frequently attributed in Ukrainian media to Igor Girkin, a Russian citizen who describes himself as a rebel military leader, seemed to post something that appeared to claim responsibility for the downed plane.
“We have just shot down an AN-26 plane in the Torez region, it is lying somewhere near the Progress mine,” read the post at 5:50 p.m. Moscow time on the social media site VKontakte. “We have warned emphatically: Do not fly in ‘our sky.’”
The Washington Post has not confirmed that the posting was created by Girkin or someone associated with the rebels. The post, which appeared to suggest that the pro-Russian forces thought the aircraft was a Ukrainian military transport plane, claimed to offer “video confirmation” of the crash. However, after news emerged that the downed plane was a commercial airliner, the post was removed.
Ukrainian officials also said that two other planes were shot down earlier in the week: A Ukrainian air force jet, which they said was shot down by an air-to-air missile from a Russian plane on Wednesday; and a military transport plane, which they said was shot down Monday by a missile fired from Russian territory.
World leaders and politicians quickly reacted to the crash, offering condolences and assistance, but some reactions were muddled based on the confusion. Sen. John McCain (R) told reporters Thursday afternoon that “the culpable party here is Putin,” though he admitted that his comments were based solely on news reports, which at the time were inconclusive and lacking many details.
This confusion is likely to linger, because any investigation is expected to be complicated by the fighting in the region. A Ukrainian regional official said after the crash that rebels did not allow the government access to the plane for the first hour, while Russian officials are insisting that they have a right to be included in any investigation of the crash. And pro-Russian separatists told Interfax they had found “black box” flight recorders at the crash scene, saying later that they planned to give them to officials in Moscow.
Meanwhile, the plane was filled with Dutch, Malaysian, Australian and Indonesian citizens, among others, which meant that the crash transcended the Ukrainian-Russian border and touched countries around the world. So in addition to Russian officials wanting to be part of the investigation, other countries could also insist on being part of the efforts to understand the crash.
Karoun Demirjian and Natasha Abbakumova in Moscow and Abby Phillip, Isabelle Khurshudyan and Kirill Kozionov in Washington contributed to this report.
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