U.S. intelligence officials say they are now nearly certain it was pro-Russian separatists who fired the SA-11 antiaircraft missile that downed a Malaysia Airlines flight last week, and that the separatists likely did not know they had hit a commercial airliner until after it had slammed to the ground.
The officials, who briefed reporters in Washington on Tuesday on condition of anonymity, said there is so far no specific evidence that the Russian government ordered the shootdown that killed 298 people. But they stressed the incident was precipitated by ongoing Russian meddling in eastern Ukraine.
“It’s a solid case that this is an SA-11 fired from eastern Ukraine under conditions the Russians helped to create,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official, who said the American intelligence community is seeking to push back against misinformation the Russian government has disseminated about the case in recent days.
Russian officials have argued that the airliner was actually shot down by Ukrainian military forces who’ve been battling for months against the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But a senior U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday that the Russian claims are simply unfounded. While Ukrainian military forces have access to SA-11 missiles, the official said, “we are confident no Ukrainian air defense systems were within range of the crash.”
“Ukranian forces have also not fired a single surface-to-air missile during the conflict,” the official said.
The assertions came on a fifth day of tense international posturing over the disaster.
While pro-Russian separatists in control of the crash site having showed little willingness to allow a full-scale investigation being called for by several world powers, there was a breakthrough Tuesday when the separatists let a train loaded with bodies from the site move into territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.
Five days after the Malaysian plane was blown from the sky en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, the refrigerated train finally rolled out of the eastern Ukrainian war zone and into a weedy rail yard in the government-held city of Kharkiv. But it was not immediately clear how many of the 282 corpses that have so far been found — many after having laid out in the sun for several days — were packed onto the train.
A team of Dutch specialists, along with investigators from Interpol, were reportedly on the scene to begin attempting to identify the bodies through a process of labeling and numbering the remains.
The black boxes containing the plane’s flight data also have been turned over to Dutch and Malaysian authorities, as international law requires. And international observers have been allowed to inspect the debris, though only within sight of armed separatist guerrillas.
Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said some observers say the wreckage seems to have been disturbed.
“We are keeping a very close eye on that — looking at the fuselage now compared to what it was on Day One,” he said. “And we have noted some differences.”
Nearly 200 of the plane-crash victims were Dutch citizens, and President Obama visited the Netherlands Embassy in Washington on Tuesday to sign a condolences book.
“Obviously, we’re all heartbroken by what’s happened,” Mr. Obama said. “And this is an opportunity for me to extend, on behalf of all the American people, our deepest condolences over the loss of family and friends; to express our solidarity with the people of the Netherlands, with whom we’ve been friends and had the deepest ties for centuries; and to assure the Dutch people that we will work with them to make sure that loved ones are recovered, that a proper investigation is conducted, and that, ultimately, justice is done.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Russia is committed to pressuring the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to cooperate with international investigators seeking to gain peaceful and sustained access to the crash site.
But Mr. Putin showed no real sign of wavering in the larger conflict playing out between Moscow and Kiev — even as the possibility of sterner EU and U.S. sanctions loomed. In a speech to Russia’s security council, he lashed out at the West over the threat of further sanctions if Moscow doesn’t stop supporting the separatists.
“They are almost placing an ultimatum before Russia: Either allow us to eliminate the part of the population that is ethnically, culturally and historically close to Russia, or we’ll bring in some kind of sanctions against you,” Mr. Putin said. “It’s a strange logic. And, of course, absolutely unacceptable.”
European Union foreign ministers agreed Tuesday to expand a list of Russian entities and individuals subject to sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans. They threatened to target vast sectors of the Russian economy if Moscow did not act swiftly to rein in the rebels.
But the group stopped well short of carrying out broader “sectoral” sanctions against the Russian economy. They agreed instead to prepare a list of options, including a potential arms embargo.
Mr. Putin accused the West of supporting “radical, fascist forces” that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Russia president in February, a revolt which he called a “coups d’etat that had been provoked and financed from the outside.”
He said the West is trying to undermine Russia as well, and that an increased NATO presence on Russia’s western border will only require Russia to beef up its own military — including in Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in March.
Obama administration officials, meanwhile, grew more insistent Tuesday with claims that Moscow played a dangerous role in the downing of the Malaysian flight last Thursday.
“That missile was fired from a separatist-controlled area,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “And, at the time, the Ukrainian military was not operating antiaircraft weapons in that area.”
His remarks were bolstered later in the day by the senior U.S. intelligence officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
One of the officials asserted that the flow of military equipment from Moscow to the pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine has likely continued unabated since last week’s disaster.
“The Ukraine National Security and Defense Council announced earlier this week that separatists in Luhansk had received from Russia additional tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, armored personnel carriers and several trucks loaded with munitions,” the senior U.S. intelligence official said. “This morning, Ukraine indicated another 20 tanks and armored vehicles had crossed the border.”
The intelligence officials did, however, caution against reading their statements as a final and certain assessment of what occurred last week.
They said their view of the situation was based on a variety of sources, including intercepts and satellite photos. But the officials acknowledged that they were also relying in part on social media postings and videos that have been made public in recent days by the Ukrainian government.
While some of the posting have been examined closely by U.S. experts, others have not been totally corroborated by U.S. sources, the officials said.
Furthermore, one of the intelligence officials said that the specific identity of the men who were operating the mobile system that fired the SA-11 missile on July 17 is not yet clear. There remains a possibility, the official said, that some of them may have actually been Russians working undercover inside eastern Ukraine in support of the separatists.
Additionally, the intelligence officials said there remain questions about whether the missile crew may have trained in Russia.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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