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Cautious who-fired-it finger

July 18: US President Barack Obama today said the shot that downed the Malaysian jetliner yesterday “was taken within a territory that is controlled by Russian separatists”.

All 298 aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17 were killed.

“What we know right now, what we have confidence in saying right now is that a surface-to-air missile was fired and that’s what brought the jet down. We know — or we have confidence in saying that that shot was taken within a territory that is controlled by the Russian separatists,” Obama said at the White House.

But the President appeared reluctant to pin direct blame, saying: “I think it’s very important for us to make sure that we don’t get out ahead of the facts. And at this point, in terms of identifying specifically what individual or group of individuals or personnel ordered the strike, how it came about, those are things that I think are still going to be subject to additional information that we’re going to be gathering.”

But America’s ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, was more direct, citing “credible evidence” of the separatists launching a Russian-made SA-11 anti-aircraft missile and refusing to rule out a role by Russian personnel. The SA-11 is known as the 9K37-Buk in Ukraine and Russia.

Power told an emergency Security Council meeting that the SA-11’s “technical complexity” meant “we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the system”.

Ukraine released audio of what it said were intercepted phone calls between the rebels and Russian officers. In one, a purported separatist commander identified as Igor Bezler tells a Russian military intelligence official: “We have just shot down a plane.”

In another, a man says Cossack militiamen shot the plane down. He adds that it’s a passenger jet and was carrying no weapons, only “civilian belongings, medicinal stuff, towels, toilet paper….”

Ukrainian journalist Myroslava Petsa said the people in the audio sounded shocked by what they had found in the wreckage, suggesting they mistakenly downed what they had thought was a military aircraft. But the intercepts are yet to be verified by an independent agency.

Malaysia Airline and UN officials said the victims included 80 children. At least one American was killed, too, Obama said — a revelation that raises the stakes in a pivotal incident in deteriorating relations between Russia and the West.

In reply to a question whether he sees any effective US military role at this point, Obama said: “We don’t see a military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our Nato partners….”

Obama said the separatists had received a steady flow of support from Russia including anti-aircraft weapons, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin had the most power to stop the violence but had done nothing.

Putin, who has blamed Ukraine’s government saying it created the conditions for the separatist uprising, has not denied that a Russian-made weapon may have destroyed the aircraft. He today called for a cease-fire and urged the two sides to hold peace talks as soon as possible.

Warning shot

As the UN Security Council called for a “full, thorough and independent international investigation”, the rebels said they would allow access to the crash site to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a rights and security watchdog.

But when a 30-strong team of the first international monitors, made up mostly of OSCE officials, reached the crash site this afternoon, the rebel militiamen allowed only a partial and superficial inspection.

While the delegation was leaving under orders from armed overseers, two Ukrainian members lingered to glance at a fragment of the plane by the roadside, only for a militiaman to fire a warning shot in the air with his Kalashnikov.

That gives a sense of the obstacles investigators face in deciphering a 20sqkm disaster scene spread over contested ground amid a conflict in which both sides have interests that may outweigh a desire to uncover the truth.

That the missile was an SA-11 is suggested by spy satellite data that showed its final trajectory and impact but not its point of origin, US intelligence officials said.

Both Russia and the separatists have denied responsibility, and some rebel leaders have suggested Ukraine’s armed forces shot the plane down. But US ambassador Power said Ukraine had no SA-11 in that area.

Kiev has been saying the rebels may have purloined a Buk missile from the Ukraine military. In late June, the separatists had bragged on social media that they had seized a Buk system from a Ukrainian military base.

Ukraine’s interior ministry has released a video purporting to show a truck carrying a Buk missile launcher, with one of its four missiles missing. It said a police surveillance squad filmed the footage at dawn today as the truck headed to a city near the Russian border.

“This is not the sort of thing that you or I could scramble together to operate. It needs a trained crew,” said Doug Richardson, missile and rocket editor at IHS Jane’s International Defence Review. This suggests it could have been a “partially trained crew” that operated the missile system that downed MH-17.

Conscripts without the full training on how to man the missile system could also potentially have made such a mistake, Richardson added.

Friendly military aircraft typically transmit a signal that is recognised by the missile system. An unknown aircraft, particularly if it is flying a route used by civilian airlines, would normally require positive identification before any attack was authorised, analysts said. It is not hard to shoot down a plane.

In the small town of Grabovo where the plane crashed, a villager who gave his name only as “Viktor” said he had seen “the light coming from a rocket” at the time the plane was felled. He said the “rocket” had come from the direction of Snezhnoye, a rebel stronghold the Ukrainians have been bombing.