At 4:21pm local time the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur carrying 298 people crashed near the town of Shakhtyorsk in the embattled Donetsk province of eastern Ukraine.
The last known position of the aircraft places it at 32km from the Russian border. The Boeing 777 aircraft type cruises at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet). The MH17 was reportedly on its regular flight path when it crashed.
US intelligence has confirmed that it was a surface-to-air missile that struck the aircraft as it flew over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. The government in Kiev has pointed to pro-Russian separatists as responsible for the crash but they have so far either denied the accusation or remained silent.
However, an alleged phone call from the separatist leader Igor Bezler, described as a Russian military intelligence officer and leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic rebel group, suggests pro-Russian rebels may actually have shot the civilian airliner down.
The call reportedly was made 20 minutes after the initial reports of loss of contact with the Malaysian Airlines plane. Mr Bezler is recorded talking to a colonel in the main intelligence department of the Russian armed forces.
“We have just shot down a plane. Group Minera. It fell down beyond Yenakievo.” Mr Bezler says. (Transcript below)
The location of the crash over towns in Donetsk lends credence to the theory of a missile strike. This region has experienced heavy fighting in the past week between separatists and Ukraine forces.
Two days ago, separatists using self-propelled or man-portable air defence weapons shot down Ukrainian SU–25 close air support jets in the province. Earlier in the week a military transport AN–26 aircraft was reportedly shot down by similar weapons.
Russian officials denied the accusation they assisted with the shootdown of these aircraft, while pro–Russian separatists claimed full responsibility.
Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of giving the rebels a BUK SA-17 system – a road-mobile self-propelled missile system – although the exact intelligence on this claim is expectedly hazy.
The SA-17 has already been suggested as the possible cause of the Malaysian Airlines crash. It has an engagement envelope of 15,000m and a range of 3-42km.
However, this weapons system is far more complex than the type apparently used to bring down the military aircraft. Several different variants of such missiles are known to be capable of engaging planes at the reported altitude and are deployed in both Ukraine and Russia.
Taking the altitude of the civilian airliner, only a medium- to long-range surface-to-air missile could have struck the aircraft. There have been unconfirmed sightings of the SA–17 system in rebel hands over the past few weeks.
Again, the rebels have denied they have weapons of the necessary range and operational envelope to hit a cruising civilian airliner.
Targeting an international airliner has not been the separatists' goal, so the strike is likely to be a mistake if it was from their weapons.
However, the route of the MH17 from west to east could have tripped the early warning radar on rebel missiles which would have been looking for approaching Ukrainian military aircraft from the same direction.
If the rebels have shot the plane down, sanctions on Russia can be expected to tighten and pressure for international governments to quell the fighting in Ukraine will be stepped up.
If the Ukrainian military has accidentally shot the aircraft down, the Russian claim that Ukraine’s campaign in the eastern provinces is illegitimate because of civilian deaths will be strengthened.
Should the evidence mount that Russia had a hand in facilitating the missile strike, the US will find it easier to convince European leaders to back their sanctions regime. This will increase tension in the region.
Below is the transcript of the phone call between the Russian separatists and Russian military intelligence officials. The translation is unofficial and taken directly from open–source audio, translated by STRATFOR:
Igor Bezler: We have just shot down a plane. Group Minera. It fell down beyond Yenakievo.
Vasili Geranin: Pilots. Where are the pilots?
IB: Gone to search for and photograph the plane. It's smoking.
VG: How many minutes ago?
IB: About 30 minutes ago.
Security Service of Ukraine comment: After examining the site of the plane the terrorists come to the conclusion that they have shot down a civilian plane. The next part of the conversation took place about 40 minutes later.
"Major": These are Chernukhin folks who shot down the plane. From the Chernukhin check point. Those cossacks who are based in Chernukhino.
"Greek": 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 sh-t! The debris fell right into the yards (of homes).
"Greek": What kind of aircraft?
"Major": I haven't ascertained this. I haven't been to the main site. I am only surveying the scene where the first bodies fell. There are the remains of internal brackets, seats and bodies.
"Greek": Is there anything left of the weapon?
"Major": Absolutely nothing. Civilian items, medicinal stuff, towels, toilet paper.
"Greek": Are there documents?
"Major": Yes, of one Indonesian student. From a university in Thompson.