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Phone call between rebels and Russian intel suggests missile strike on Malaysia Airlines

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.

More by Nathan Smith

Comments and questions

If this implicates Russia I hope it is not a tipping point for retaliation and escalation.

Not in a million years did the Russian government sanction the downing of this plane. Looks more like a gift to the Americans from some idiot Russian separatists.

Let's hope that now with the entire world turning against Russia and their blatant and now deadly involvement in eastern Ukraine (how can it even be debated after they annexed Crimea) they will stand down and leave Ukraine alone.

unfortunately "turning point" you are assuming that the major kleptocrat and thug known as Putin, is capable of rational thought.

Another problem we in the West have is that he knows that the USA is mortally wounded reputationally and the united states of Europe couldn't find a joint strong approach if such bit them on the posterior.

To channel a previous response to a major crisis: " Houston we have a problem". To think I thought the period of the Cold war was a dangerous time... the peace dividend has sure proved illusory.

At the heart of this story is a scenario being played out in our own skies, led by what we used to refer to as 'our own' airline. As countless aviation experts have outlined on international TV broadcasts all day, this is all about cost-cutting and fuel-saving. While times have never been better for airports and airlines globally, Malaysian Airways are clearly in the financial dwang.
It's called tearing a ring out of it.
The recently perpetrated GPS control of arrivals linked to a fuel-saving glide-and-airbrake-and-go (noisy and terribly inconsiderate between 10 pm and 7 am), under the guise of Smart Approaches, but actually governing all flights is also about cutting this instance hiding behind the carbon-saving 'greenwash' cloak.
While we are constantly directed to rave about the latest aircraft joining the fleet and how well Air NZ and AIAL are doing, little is said about the chickens coming home in the findings of the Asiana 777 crash and what it said about that plane; pilot behaviour (from political motives to brawling, drunk and sleeping); and as MH370 demonstrated we don't really have a clue about where planes are at any one time. Lawless Skies are the outcome of greed as airlines transition from nationally prestige flag-bearers to cut-throat retailers, slashing and culling for the sake of corporate executive bonus payouts.
And airports transition into Westfield clones milking their tenants, users, taxi operators etc and parking is more about rip-off than convenience.
Time to stop smelling the roses and gasp at the incompletely combusted avgas -- toxic as hell -- drifting down on our residential suburbs. (Check your walls facing the nearest flight paths now crisscrossing the suburbs at half and less than the previous altitude limits) if you think I have a bee-in-my-bonnet rather than a buzz in the ears!

Some good points. According to one article I read Singapore Airlines also uses the same route - doersn't Air NZ codeshare passengers on to them too?

09:11: Pictures have emerged showing a convoy of pro-Russian militants allegedly transporting the Buk surface-to-air system to the location from which it supposedly shot down the Malaysian airliner. They have been circulated by pro-Ukrainian journalist Dmytro Tymchuk, an authoritative military reporter in Ukraine, according to BBC Monitoring