At least 298 people are dead after a surface to air missile brought down a Kuala Lumpur-bound Malaysian Airlines flight over Eastern Ukraine on Thursday. The flight- Malaysia Airlines Flight 17- had originated in Amsterdam and was flying more than 32,000 feet over the strife-torn Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
In recent weeks, that part of the Ukraine has seen fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatist militias that are essentially Kremlin proxies along Ukraine's border with Russia. Earlier in the week, separatists boasted that they had shot down a Ukrainian military An-26 transport plane over the eastern city of Lugansk.
After the Ukrainian 'Maidan' uprising ousted Kremlin allied president Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year, Russia responded by annexing the strategically important Crimea peninsula- part of the Ukraine, but home to a number of strategic Russian naval facilities. After a hastily put together 'referendum' in which Moscow claimed the populace of the Crimea wanted to become part of Russia, masked fighters claiming to be pro-Russian separatists began seizing public buildings in key cities in the eastern Ukraine. However, it's widely believed these 'separatists' are acting on direct orders from the Kremlin. In May, shortly after candy tycoon Petro Poroshenko won a special election called after Yanukovych fled the country, the Ukrainian military launched a series of counterattacks culminating in a raid on Donetsk's international airport in late May that killed dozens of pro-Russian separatists who were using the buildings as headquarters.
The 'rebels' retaliated by shooting down Ukrainian military aircraft over eastern Ukraine- the deadliest of which was when a Ukrainian Defense Ministry Il-76 transport was shot down while on approach over the eastern city of Lugansk on June 14th, killing all 49 on board. Just days prior to the downing of Flight MH17, two Ukrainian military aircraft were shot down over the restive eastern part of the country.
An hour before news broke of Flight MH17 going down, pro Russian separatist leader Igor Strelkov boasted of shooting down an aircraft on Russian social media site Vkontakte [similar to Facebook- NANESB!] complete with the ominous line 'We warned them not to fly in our skies'. Although it was quickly deleted after news of MH17 being shot down broke internationally, several online observers were able to obtain screencaps of the damning message. In addition to the Russian government caught editing the Wikipedia entry on Flight MH17 on Friday, Ukraine's SBU intelligence agency released what they claim is a telephone conversation between separatist commanders and Russian officers, with the separatists notifying them they had just shot down a civilian airliner.
It appears to capture the chaotic moments after the plane was shot down — and the realization that it was a passenger plane rather than a Ukrainian transport plane, which had been targeted in recent days by the Russia-backed separatists.
"We have just shot down a plane," says a man the SBU identified as Igor Bezler, a Russian military intelligence officer and leading commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.
That call came just 20 minutes after the crash and was placed to a person identified by Ukraine’s SBU as a colonel in the main intelligence department of the general headquarters of the armed forces of the Russian Federation Vasili Geranin, according to Ukraine security officials.
But in a second tape released by the agency, two men identified as "The Greek" and "Major" discuss the debris field and the fact the the plane was a civilian aircraft.
“It’s 100 percent a passenger [civilian] aircraft,” Major is recorded as saying, as he admitted to seeing no weapons on site. “Absolutely nothing. Civilian items, medicinal stuff, towels, toilet paper.”
The Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down by what U.S. intelligence sources confirm was a surface-to-air missile near the village of Chornukhine, Luhansk Oblast, some 30 miles inside the the border with Russia.
The second conversation, if verified as authentic, could dispel Russian separatist claims that it was the Ukrainian military that shot the plane down. According to the transpcript:
Major: "These are Chernukhin folks who shot down the plane. From the Chernukhin check point. Those cossacks who are based in Chernukhino."
Grek: "Yes, Major."
Major: "The plane fell apart in the air. In the area of Petropavlovskaya mine. The first '200' [code word for dead person]. We have found the first '200.' A Civilian."
Greek: "Well, what do you have there?"
Major: "In short, it was 100 percent a passenger [civilian] aircraft."
Greek: "Are many people there?"
Major: "Holy [expletive]! The debris fell right into the yards [of homes]."
In a third intercepted conversation released by the SBU — which the agency says took place about 40 minutes after insurgents seemed to realize they had shot down a civilian plane — Cossack commander Nikolay Kozitsin tells an unidentified separatist that the fact the Malaysia Airlines plane was flying over the combat zone likely meant it was carrying spies.
"That means they were carrying spies," Kozitsin allegedly says. "They shouldn’t be [expletive] flying. There is a war going on."
At this point, the most likely scenario is that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by pro-Russian separatists who misidentified the aircraft as a Ukrainian ministry of Defense transport plane and opened fire with a surface to air missile system known as the 'Buk' SA-11 or an updated variant. The 'Buk' is a complex, crew serviced weapons platform that is mounted on a tracked or wheeled vehicle. Both Russia and the Ukraine militaries have the SA-11 Buk in their inventory, but pro-Russian separatists from the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic boasted of seizing heavy weapons- including an SA-11 launcher- from a Ukrainian air defense facility in late June. On Friday, the Ukrainian government released a brief video of a Buk missile system with at least one missile missing on a flatbed trailer purportedly heading towards Russian territory. For its part, Russia has lobbed accusations that Kiev downed the airliner [a civilian aircraft that was within moments of leaving it's airspace at an altitude of 32,000 feet, no less- NANESB], prompting one English-language RT correspondent to abruptly resign.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the flight data recorder for MH17 is almost certainly in territory controlled by the pro-Russian Donetsk militia. Should it be recovered and sent to Moscow, international aviation experts claim it will most likely be doctored and anything that incriminates Russia or their proxies in Donetsk will be removed. There is also the likelihood that MH17's descent was so abrupt and catastrophic that they black box flight recorders may yield little in the way of data. Even so, heavily armed militiamen had prevented international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from examining the crash scene on Friday. 193 of Flight MH17's passengers were Dutch- including an American who held dual citizenship with Holland and 22 schoolchildren from the town of Roosendaal, and amid reports of militiamen compromising the crash site, pickpocketing the scattered bodies and dumping dozens of bodies from the crash site by the side of a road, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has said Putin has one 'last chance' to show he's serious about helping recover the bodies and personal effects
Despite the ongoing conflict on the ground, the skies above the eastern Ukraine weren't off-limits to commercial airliners. According to online aviation tracking website FlightAware.com, other commercial carriers such as Lufthansa and Air India were routinely flying through eastern Ukraine airspace prior to the downing of Flight MH17.