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U.S. Intelligence Sources Confirm Malaysia Airlines Flight Hit By Surface-To-Air Missile

Malaysia Air Flight 17 Crash Scene

Sources in the U.S. intelligence community are telling reporters that it has been confirmed that Malaysia Air Flight 17 was brought down by a surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine earlier today:

A Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 295 passengers and crew came down Thursday while flying over the battle-torn east Ukraine region of Donetsk, after it was hit by what U.S. intelligence agencies said was a surface-to-air missile.

The intelligence sources didn’t say whether the missile was fired by Ukrainian forces or pro-Russia separatist rebels.

Malaysia Airlines said contact was lost with Flight 17 about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Russia-Ukraine border.  The Boeing 777 77 departed from Amsterdam around noon on Thursday and was due to arrive in Kuala Lumpur early Friday.

Ukraine’s state air-traffic control service confirmed the flight had crashed and said a special investigation commission has been rushed to the scene.

The plane went down near the village of Hrabove in the Donetsk region while flying at a height of about 10,000 meters (32,800 feet), according to Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry.

The crash immediately sparked speculation about the cause. For months, Ukrainian forces have been trying to subdue pro-Russia separatists who seized towns across the region in April and declared an independent republic. The fighting escalated this week when Ukrainian authorities reported that one of its military cargo planes and one of its military fighter jets had been downed in the area.

The disaster comes as a new trauma for Malaysia Airlines, the carrier already at the center of a global mystery over the disappearance of one of its flights in March, another Boeing 777 that went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Footage captured by locals from the wreckage site showed a massive grey plume of smoke emerging from a field before sunset. Subsequent images pictured Ukrainian emergency forces hosing down the wreckage, as well as passports, tickets and pieces of bodies found in tact near the crash site.

The war of accusations kicked off immediately after the crash. In a phone call with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Gerashchenko alleged that pro-Russia rebels had set up a ground-to-air missile battery near the Russian border by the town of Snizhne.

“They clearly thought that it was a military transport plane that they were shooting at,” he said. “They were the ones who did this.” His claims couldn’t be verified.

In a Facebook post, Mr. Gerashchenko alleged that the separatists had obtained a Buk surface-to-air missile system that he said locals saw them parading near the towns of Snizhne and Torez during the day on Thursday. He said a convoy with the anti-aircraft missile was seen heading toward Shakhtarsk, a town not far from the crash site, about an hour before the plane went down late Thursday afternoon.

In late June, separatist leaders told the Russian news outlets RIA Novosti and Interfax that they had taken control of a Ukrainian air-defense base near the village of Oleksiivka equipped with Buk missiles. The Donetsk People’s Republic also posted a photo of the missiles, sometimes known as Gadfly systems, on its official Twitter feed at the time, declaring a victory in having seized the weaponry.

But on Thursday, separatist leaders denied that they had surface-to-air missiles such as the Buk system that were powerful enough to shoot down a Boeing 777 flying at such a height.

Sergei Kavtaradze, one of the leaders of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, accused Ukrainian forces of having shot down the plane.

“The plane was shot down by the Ukrainian side,” he told the Interfax news agency. “We simply don’t have those kind of air defense systems.”

Ukraine’s president and prime minister didn’t immediately assign blame for the incident.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk ordered a special investigation into the crash, as well as the downing of a Ukrainian AN-26 military cargo aircraft and a Ukrainian SU-25 fighter jet in the same area earlier this week.

“This is the third tragic incident in recent days after the AN-26 and SU-25 were shot down,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in a statement. “We can’t rule out that this plane was also shot down, but we underscore that the Ukrainian armed forces were not carrying out any actions to strike airborne targets.”

More from CNN:

The United States has concluded the Malaysian airline was shot down, a senior U.S. official told CNN’s Barbara Starr. One radar system saw a surface-to-air missile system turn on and track an aircraft right before the plane went down Thursday, according to the official. A second system saw a heat signature at the time the airliner was hit, the official said. The United States is analyzing the trajectory of the missile to try to learn where the attack came from.

In other developments:

- “We must and we will find out precisely what happened to this flight. No stone will be left unturned,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters. He called for an international team to have full access to the crash site. “If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice,” he said.

- U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday that Ukraine’s president accepted an offer of U.S. experts to investigate the crash of a Malaysia Airlines jetliner there, adding “they will be on their way rapidly to see if we can get to the bottom of this.”

Biden said the plane was apparently shot down, adding “not an accident, blown out of the sky.”

The biggest question, of course, is who might be responsible for this attack and why it happened. All of the various sides in the conflict in eastern Ukraine are, not surprisingly, blaming each other but the focus at this point seems to be on the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, who may have gotten their hands on some very sophisticated anti-aircraft equipment. In apparent support of that hypothesis, the Ukrainians have released what they claim is the transcript of a conservation between pro-Russian separatists and a Russian military intelligence officer that seems to confirm that the separatists believed that they had shot down a Ukrainian plane. While it’s always advisable to take a report like this from a source that obviously has something to gain in the matter with a grain a salt, this report does seem to corroborate some of the reports we saw earlier today in which a separatist leader had apparently initially claimed credit for shooting down what he seemed to think was a Ukrainian plane, only to delete those social media posts almost immediately after the reports of the downing of MH 17 were starting to become public. All of that would indicate that the downing of the plane was a mistake, which certainly makes sense under the circumstances since there would seem to be no rational reason why anyone involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine would want to deliberately target civilian jetliners from nations that have nothing to do with the conflict.

As for how the attack might have been pulled off, the primary suspect in that regard appears to be the Buk Missile System, a Russian anti-aircraft missile system that can reportedly aircraft flying at the level that MH 17 was at when it was hit, as well as far higher. According to some reports, the Donetsk separatists had captured at least one Buk system from a Ukrainian base during an attack several weeks ago, so that theory does seem to have some degree of plausibility to it. What’s unclear is how the separatists would have gained the knowledge needed to operate the system and whether the Russians that are known to have been provided assistance to these groups over the past several months played any role in that.  In any case, it appears that while the system would allow them to track aircraft flying even as high as MH 17 was, it may not be able to differentiate between military an civilian targets unless its tied into a wider air traffic control system, which would obviously not be the case here. So the most plausible explanation would be that the separatists spotted what they assumed was a Ukrainian plane and opened fire without realizing what they were doing.

Mistake or not, though, the consequences of their action are the same, and it seems fairly obvious that this act is going to have wide repercussions for the conflict in Ukraine and the international community’s response to that conflict. The U.N. Security Council has already announced that it will hold a meeting tomorrow morning to discuss the incident, and most international airliners have announced that they will not be flying over Ukraine in light of what happened today. Tensions between Ukraine and Russia had already been on the upswing in the past week or so, and this incident is only likely to make that worse. For his part, Russian President Putin has said publicly that the incident is ultimately Ukraine’s fault because of their decision to renew their offensive against the separatists over the past several weeks. Ukrainian officials, of course, see the matter quite differently, with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko blaming the separatists and calling the attack an act of terrorism. One can only assume that the rhetoric will get worse over the coming days. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, it will be important to keep an eye on discovering the truth of what actually happened and, if possible bringing the people responsible to justice. Whether that will be possible under these circumstances, though, is an open question.

Photo of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash scene via ABC News

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Tillman says:

    So we’re dismissing the idea that the Russians deliberately did this because it would be stupid, right?

    The current credible theory is the separatists shot the jetliner down by accident?

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  2. CB says:

    @Tillman:

    Looks that way. So bad..

    ReplyReply

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  3. lounsbury says:

    Ouch.

    Mistaken identity by yahoos is a not incredible hypothesis.

    Well, unless this proves to be Ukrainian military incompetence (not excludable although not most likely), Russians are right buggered on the political front.

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  4. michael reynolds says:

    A video of the guilty phone call with translation is up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnuHxAR01Jo

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  5. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t think it’s quite an accident if in the attempt to shoot a police officer you shoot a bystander. Let’s remember: these people had no business shooting at anyone in the air. It was reckless, it was stupid, it was incompetent. Not quite sure “accident” covers it. Negligent homicide at the very least, and closer to second degree murder.

    ReplyReply

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  6. John425 says:

    Hmmmm…just surprised that all the Bush-Israel haters aren’t on here claiming it was Bush who ordered the Israelis to shoot it down.

    ReplyReply

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 44

  7. Slugger says:

    Let’s wait a day or two to see what really happened. Ukraine has shot down a civilian airliner before; Siberian airlines 1812 comes to mind. Other countries have also been quick on the trigger like Iran Air 655. Stupidity and carelessness are not on the endangered species list.

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 1

  8. rudderpedals says:

    When there’s a Buk on the wall in Act One…

    ReplyReply

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  9. al-Ameda says:

    @John425:

    Hmmmm…just surprised that all the Bush-Israel haters aren’t on here claiming it was Bush who ordered the Israelis to shoot it down.

    Not-to-worry, there will be Obama-haters who will argue that our inaction during the recent Ukraine/Crimean secessionist is what caused this tragedy. Cheer up, Obama will be blamed.

    ReplyReply

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  10. lounsbury says:

    @John425: eh?

    ReplyReply

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  11. CB says:

    @John425: @al-Ameda:

    I like the theory that the Mossad brought it down to distract from Gaza.

    And by like, I mean I facepalm like Patrick Stewart. Some people are so friggin’ stupid.

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  12. Todd says:

    Misidentification or not, it seems likely that the pro-russian seperatists are about to find themselves very isolated. Domestically here in the US I’m sure it won’t take Conservatives long to decide this wouldn’t have happened if Obama had just been “tougher” on Putin.

    ReplyReply

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  13. Guarneri says:

    Looks like a “tragedy.” Sad stuff. But my advisors have been instructed to look into it. Now, to the real stuff………Good to be in Delaware. A priest, rabbi and hooker walk into a bar……

    ReplyReply

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  14. Peter says:

    The separatist leader who gave the order to shoot down the airliner, thinking it was a military aircraft, really ought to do the proper thing to atone for his mistake, and put a bullet in his brain. Of course he won’t.

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  15. CB says:

    Putin: “The country over whose airspace this happened bears responsibility for the terrible tragedy”

    WHAT!?

    http://kremlin.ru/news/46243

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  16. mantis says:

    @John425:

    …just surprised that all the Bush-Israel haters…

    What’s Bush-Israel? Is that like Beth Israel? No, Bush isn’t a Hebrew word.Curious.

    Anyway, I think most folks capable of rational thought suppose that, given what’s been reported so far, the only leader who might be responsible for this, in addition to the Russian-supported separatist idiots who likely did it, is recent wingnut strongman idol Vladimir Putin. Oh, if only we had such a president!

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  17. Rob in CT says:

    @John425: To quote Animal House, “Gee, you’re dumb.”

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  18. Matt Bernius says:

    @Slugger:

    Let’s wait a day or two to see what really happened. Ukraine has shot down a civilian airliner before; Siberian airlines 1812 comes to mind. Other countries have also been quick on the trigger like Iran Air 655. Stupidity and carelessness are not on the endangered species list.

    This is entirely the case. Then again, the Russians (and the US) for that matter have also shot down commercial jet (I see you mentioned Iran Air).

    That said, it make far more sense — Occam-wize — that this was a screw up on the part of the separatists.

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  19. anjin-san says:

    @ john425

    the Bush-Israel haters

    So is what you are saying is that you are moving away from the whole “grounded in reality” thing?

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  20. President Camacho says:

    @Guarneri: yes, bad form by the pres in that speech. His handlers should be kicking themselves right now. Best to apologize early and acknowledge it

    ReplyReply

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  21. dazedandconfused says:

    @Peter:

    If I were the rebel commander I’d be trying to convince the operator to take one for the team before offing himself, unless he came across as an idiot. Better to have the world suspect we are a bunch of clowns than prop Curly up in front of the cameras and remove all doubt.

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  22. michael reynolds says:

    @Guarneri:

    It’s called sang froid. Like when he attended the correspondent’s dinner as Osama Bin Laden was being taken out. It used to be considered a manly virtue, sang froid. But I gather you missed that lesson. You like your politicians needier, sweatier, less secure and more Mission Accomplish-y. Preferably with a stuffed jock in an un-earned jumpsuit.

    ReplyReply

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  23. Jim R says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Not-to-worry, there will be Obama-haters who will argue that our inaction during the recent Ukraine/Crimean secessionist is what caused this tragedy. Cheer up, Obama will be blamed.

    Already happening — see McCain, John. (Although, if McCain’s dog got run over he would find a way to blame it on Obama’s “weak foreign policy,” meaning not bombing countries X,Y, and Z.)

    ReplyReply

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  24. C. Clavin says:

    C’mon…Obama did this (actually he sent Michelle undercover to Ukraine) to distract from the border issues created by Congressional inaction.

    ReplyReply

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  25. humanoid.panda says:

    @CB: This means he knows that the rebels did it, and seeking to deflect the blame (if Ukrainians weren’t attacking them, this wouldn’t have happened).

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  26. CSK says:

    I just read a report in the Boston Globe that one of the world’s top AIDS researchers was killed, and that many of those on board the plane were on their way to an AIDS conference.

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  27. Mu says:

    BTW what happened to the 23 US citizens on the flight twitter was going nuts about yesterday? I haven’t seen any US casualties listed on the latest lists of nationalities.

    ReplyReply

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  28. gVOR08 says:

    @lounsbury:

    Mistaken identity by yahoos..

    Yeah. Likely Ukrainian military who defected to the separatists with their missile battery. With no command and control organization. I keep having a mental picture of a SAM battery manned by the yahoos from around the Bundy ranch.

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  29. CSK says:

    @Mu:

    In the report I just read, they had a partial manifest. There were no U.S. citizens listed on it, but they’ve only accounted for 181 passengers out of 298. One of them was a Dutch student doing a Ph.D. in chemistry at Indiana University, so there might be some confusion with exchange students or visitors being mistakenly initially identified as Americans.

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  30. grumpy realist says:

    Josh has a good editorial over at TPM, pointing out what a screw-up this is for Putin.

    I’m reminded of someone’s (Metternich?) comment about Napoleon’s judicial killing of the Duc d’Amiens: “It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.”

    ReplyReply

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  31. grumpy realist says:

    I assume the most likely hypothesis at present is that the plane was shot down by separatists with some under-the-table assistance from the Russian military (can we say plausible deniability, anyone?).

    No wonder Putin is sounding like a North Korean press release in this affair.

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  32. C. Clavin says:

    Allen West:

    Sadly, hundreds of Ukrainians and 298 souls on MH17 have paid the price for the weakness and abject cowardice of Obama’s “flexibility. And here in America we quibble over a lawsuit against this charlatan. The blood on Vladimir Putin’s hands was poured by Barack Obama who is indirectly responsible, accountable, and no different than Neville Chamberlain’s weakness in the face of the 20th Century maniacal dictator Adolf Hitler.

    ReplyReply

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  33. grumpy realist says:

    @C. Clavin: Uh, wait, what?

    Nice statement from someone who IIRC committed war crimes.

    ReplyReply

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  34. John425 says:

    @Rob in CT: and quoting Dean Wormer: ” Being fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life”, Rob.

    ReplyReply

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  35. John425 says:

    @anjin-san: No, just recognizing that the knee-jerk left wingnuts usually resort to blaming the GOP and/or Israel for everything.

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  36. John425 says:

    @lounsbury: What’s the matter? No habla Ingles? Sprechen zie Amerikaner? Parlez vous anything?

    ReplyReply

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  37. Grewgills says:

    @John425:
    and that is so much better than what you have done here. I think you might need one of these.

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  38. Lounsbury says:

    @John425: En effet je maîtrise pas mal des langues européennes et également sémitiques, mais la langue maternelle n’est rein autre que la langue de Shakespeare. Ceci dite, la maîtrise de cette langue n’aide pas à comprendre le crétinisme intense de cette remarque, avec toute l’illogique qu’elle comprend.

    It rather escapes what sort of dim-witted provincial cretinism and vulgarian poujadiste idealogy leads one to think such a thing is clever.

    In short, a dim witted vulgarian demarche. Not clever, not actually relevant, and perhaps amusing only to someone who has swilled by some large quantity of low grade slops you pretend is beer.

    ReplyReply

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  39. John425 says:

    @Lounsbury: Actually I prefer Smithwick but Heineken will do in a pinch. Additionally, your supposedly “cute” reply is indicative of the last and failed vestiges of European haughtiness that quasi-intellectuals love to wear. Your original comment of “eh?” also shows a remarkable ability to misunderstand both parody and satire. But then, Socialists and Democrats never did have a sense of humor.

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  40. John425 says:

    @Grewgills: I prefer the B.S. Detection Meter and when I scan this blog the meter pegs out on overload.

    ReplyReply

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  41. John425 says:

    @anjin-san: Not at all- just saying that the interpretations are taking place on a higher level that you can understand. You are still far from understanding your thing-ama-jig.

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  42. An Interested Party says:

    No, just recognizing that the knee-jerk left wingnuts usually resort to blaming the GOP and/or Israel for everything.

    As opposed to blaming Obama for everything…

    ReplyReply

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