MOSCOW — A Malaysian Boeing 777 carrying 295 people on board was shot down Thursday by a surface-to-air missile outside the mining town of Shakhtersk in eastern Ukraine, an area controlled by rebels. Ukrainian, Russian, and pro-Russian rebel officials all confirmed that a missile had taken down the plane. It fell from a height of more than 10,600 meters; everyone on board, including dozens of children and 15 members of the crew, died in the catastrophe.
Pieces of the plane, human remains, passports, and money were spread in a radius of 10 miles around the catastrophe in the region of Grabovo and Rassypnaya, experts from the Russian ministry of emergency affairs (MCHS) and witnesses reported. During the first few hours of the rescue operation, rebel militia discovered remains of more than 100 people. There were no Russian citizens among the victims. The “black box” from the airplane traveled to Moscow “for investigation,” Russian radio station Kommersant FM reported.
Who hit the Malaysian airplane that was flying so high over Ukraine? All sides agreed that it was brought down by a Buk antiaircraft missile, also known as a SA-17 Grizzly in NATO terminology.
“All three sides of the conflict, Russian, pro-Russian rebels, and Ukrainian forces have Buk systems,” Moscow-based military expert Alexander Golts told The Daily Beast in an interview. “The Ukrainian army could shoot at the plane thinking it was Russian intelligence flying over their territory, pro-Russian rebels could bring down a plane, as they have done previously several times, including a Ukrainian cargo plane they shot down at over 6,000 meters above the ground.”
Golts also noted that according to Interfax reports pro-Russian rebels recently took control of military base 24-02 in Donetsk. “That base had Buk missiles systems; if they saw a plane on radars, they could very well fire at it, but of course one needs to know how to operate Buks,” Golts added.
Earlier on Wednesday the defense minister of the self-proclaimed Republic of Donetsk, Igor Strelkov, published a post on Facebook that he later deleted: “Just now AN-26 airplane was shot down outside Terez—we have warned them about ‘our sky.’”
Russian human-rights activist Alexander Cherkasov saved the screenshot of the post and provided it to The Daily Beast:
Accounts given by rebel commanders were full of contradictions.
Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the Donetsk Republic, denied having a single Buk, and added “unfortunately.” The rebel official insisted on radio Kommersant FM that the Malaysian plane was “brought down by Ukrainian missile systems.” He said, “Preliminary investigation showed that the airliner had been shot down—it is obvious. The plane crashed practically on the front line, you need to understand that. We only have artillery that can hit a target at 2,500 meters.”
The pro-Russian separatists and their allies inside Russia have become indiscriminate with some of their heavy weapons. Earlier this week, residents of the Russian town of Gukovo took videos of several Grad rocket systems launching constant fire from a place that looked to a local eye like the Stepnaya mine in the Rostov region, in the direction of Biryukovo village, across the Ukrainian border. Ukrainian border-unit commanders also claimed they had been fired on by a Grad in Biryukovo and Sverdlovsk in the Luhansk region.
A Grad is a multiple rocket launcher designed to devastate a defined but extensive area. Is it becoming the weapon of tomorrow in Ukraine? Russia’s official position is still to deny any involvement in military actions in the eastern regions of Ukraine. If a Grad was used yesterday, what sort of weapon would they use tomorrow, many Ukrainians wondered.
“Our official version is that it was a Ukrainian Grad; Russia’s intention is to push Ukraine to peace talks as soon as possible and to establish an independent federal region, Novorossia, that would include one third of Ukraine,” Kremlin expert Sergei Markov said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
The Russian news agency Interfax reported that the target of the plane could be a Russian presidential airplane, hinting that Ukraine attempted to assassinate the Russian president. Meanwhile, Kiev and Moscow passed the fault for the tragedy to each other, as if they were playing ping pong with the tragedy.
State officials, military and aviation experts in both countries hurried to shift the blame for the catastrophe.
The Ukrainian president was among the first to suggest that the Malaysian airplane was shot down by pro-Russian rebels. “We do not exclude that this plane was shot down, and we stress that the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not take action against any airborne targets,” President Petro Poroshenko said. “We are sure that those who are guilty in this tragedy will be held responsible.” In Moscow, Russian Duma deputy Andrei Artemyev blamed Ukraine for blowing up the plane: “A few years ago, Ukrainians shot down a Russian passenger plane of Sibir airline—they denied it was their fault for a long time. It is all their fault again,” the deputy said, blaming Ukraine’s aviation authorities for allowing aviation to pass over the war zone. Russia stopped flying over eastern Ukraine several months ago; on Wednesday several Russian airlines canceled all their flights to Ukraine for Friday.