US intelligence officials believe that pro-Russian rebels accidently shot down flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. They have no evidence that directly links Moscow to the tragedy.
Briefing a select group of reporters on Tuesday, US intelligence officials presented evidence which they claim points to pro-Russian rebels as the culprits behind the downing of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine.
According to the officials, US satellite and other "technical" intelligence has confirmed that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-controlled territory. But it remains unclear who exactly pulled the trigger.
"We don't know a name, we don't know a rank, and we're not even 100 percent sure of a nationality," said one intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The most likely explanation, according to the US officials, was that a poorly trained crew of rebels accidentally downed MH17. The crew appeared to have relied only on the radar system that's part of the missile battery.
Relying on the missile battery's radar system means that the crew would have had a "much more fuzzy picture" of air traffic, heightening the risk of mistaking MH17 for a Ukrainian military aircraft. The SA-11 is designed for use in an "integrated air defense system," according to the officials.
No evidence of Russian link
The US intelligence officials are working under the theory that the SA-11 missile in question came from Russia. But they admitted that there is currently no evidence directly linking Moscow to the downing of MH17.
White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told US broadcaster CNN on Tuesday that Moscow bore responsibility for creating the unstable conditions in which a civilian airliner could be shot down.
"We do think President Putin and the Russian government bears responsibility for the support they provided to these separatists; the arms they provided to these separatists; the training they provided as well and the general unstable environment in eastern Ukraine," Rhodes said.
Some evidence unverified
In additional to satellite imagery and phone intercepts, the US has also relied on social media postings as well as videos made public by the Ukrainian government. But US intelligence officials acknowledged that they have not been able to independtly verify all of the Internet postings and videos.
In one video, a missile launcher - with one missile apparently missing - purportedly crosses from rebel-controlled territory in Ukraine to neighboring Russia. Ukrainian officials have claimed that three Buk missile launchers crossed into Russia after MH17 crashed. US intelligence officials have not been able verify that video.
The US officials said they wanted to present their evidence to reporters in order to counter what they called "misinformation" by Russia. Moscow blames the Ukrainian government for the downing of MH17, which killed all 298 passengers.
slk/av (AP, AFP)