18 Jul 2014

Did Russian separatists shoot down MH17?

Ukraine and the US say pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine are responsible for downing the Malaysian Airlines jet. But how strong is the evidence?

Pro-Russian separatist at MH17 crash site (Reuters)

Kiev has laid the blame for the downing of the passenger plane squarely at the door of separatists in eastern Ukraine, and now the US ambassador to the UN has said the strike probably came “from a separatist-held location”.

Malaysia Airlines say they lost contact with flight MH17 at 5.15pm local time (2.15pm GMT) on Thursday. It crashed near the village of Torez.

Images of wreckage from the plane began to surface within hours.

Ukrainian sources quickly said rebels had blown up the Boeing 777 with a missile while it was flying at 33,000ft.

Images, video footage and telephone recordings quickly began to surface on the internet, with much of the material alleging that pro-Russian rebels brought the plane down with a Russian-made SA11 Buk surface-to-air missile.

Separatists have denied responsibility for shooting down the jet, and the veracity of much of the material is disputed.

The Buk boasts

On 29 June images surfaced on Russian websites purporting to show Russian separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic looting Buk missile systems and other military hardware from a Ukrainian army base near Donetsk.

Separatist with 'looted' Buk system

The posts contain quite a lot of detail, including the number of the base – A1402. The separatists’ claims were reported by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency.

The Ukrainian government has since denied that any of its Buk missile systems have ever fallen in to the hands of rebels, but it did not issue a denial on 29 June.

The Interpreter magazine reported the story last week but suggested that it may have been misinformation planted by pro-Russian media to cover the supply of Buk rockets from the Russian Federation.

Dr Igor Sutyagin from the Royal United Services Institute told us he believes the pictures of rebels seizing the equipment to be genuine, but added: “The key question is whether that hardware was operational or not – ie had the Ukrainians damaged the key components of missiles and radars or not.”

The other planes

On 14 July separatists claimed responsibility for shooting down a Ukrainian Antonov-26 turboprop transport plane near the Russian border. All the passengers managed to bail out.

The plane was reportedly flying at 21,000ft – out of range of the portable surface-to-air missiles previously used by the rebels to shoot down helicopters and other aircraft.

Pro-Russian separatist (Reuters)

Ukraine Defence Minister Valeriy Heletey said a rocket capable of hitting a plane at that height probably came from Russian territory.

A Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter was also downed on 16 July. Kiev accused a Russian jet of taking the plane out with an air-to-air missile. Separatists claimed responsibility for strikes on two Sukhoi-25s.

The Strelkov post

A post on a feed attributed to separatist paramilitary leader Igor Strelkov – also known as Igor Girkin – appeared on the Russian social media site VKontakte about half an hour after the crash.

The full text reads: “In the area of Torez, we have just shot down an AN-26 airplane. It is scattered about somewhere by the Progress coal mine. We warned them – don’t fly in our sky.

“Here is a video confirmation of the latest bird drop. The bird fell beyond the slag heap. It did not damage the residential area. Civilians were not hurt. There is also information about a second downed airplane, apparently an SU.”

The Igor Strelkov post on VKontakte.ru

The feed is a well-established source of dispatches from the rebels and is frequently quoted in local media.

The “bird drop” post was subsequently taken down, but not before it was referenced by several news outlets. A Russian TV news station broadcast the claim that rebels had shot down an Antonov-26.

The pro-government Russian news site Vzglyad.ru quoted a local source giving similar information to that contained in the Strelkov post, before adding that pro-Russian militia had specifically claimed to have shot down a transport plane using a Buk rocket.

The telephone intercepts

A number of recordings purporting to be conversations between rebels and Russian military officers in the immediate aftermath of the crash have been released after the calls were apparently intercepted by the Ukrainian Security Service.

The authenticity of the conversations cannot be independently verified.

The recordings name several personnel as being among the speakers: a well-known rebel leader called Igor Bezler, a Cossack leader called Nikolay Kozitsyn and Vasili Geranin, a man alleged to be a Russian intelligence officer. Other speakers are referred to by nicknames.

The voice of the man said to be Bezler can be compared to recordings of the rebel leader’s voice are widely available online.

If the recordings are genuine, they suggest the rebels were indeed responsible for downing the passenger jet, although it is clear that they did not realise they were targeting a civilian aircraft.

BUK sightings

A number of photographs and videos posted online purport to show a Buk vehicle being deployed in eastern Ukraine before and after the crash.

This short video appears to show a Buk vehicle driving from Torez to the nearby village of Snizhne before the crash. The timing cannot be verified but the area has been geolocated.

Stills posted online seem to show a Buk travelling in convoy in the same area.

Another, even shorter, video is said to show a missile carrier being driven towards the Russian border on the back of a lorry on Friday.

Dr Sutyagin told us both videos appear to be genuine, although there is no way of checking when the footage was taken.

Of the second video, he says: “Yes, that is the Buk launcher (loaded onto lorry) with just two missiles (instead of the full complement of four).”

On Friday the Kiev Post quoted Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, as saying: “We think this is the very Buk system which shot at the civilian plane flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.”