U.S. intelligence officials say they are now nearly certain it was pro-Russian separatists who fired the SA-11 antiaircraft missile that downed a Malaysia Airlines flight last week, and that the separatists likely did not know they had hit a commercial airliner until after it had slammed to the ground.
The officials, who briefed reporters in Washington on Tuesday on condition of anonymity, said there is so far no specific evidence that the Russian government ordered the shootdown that killed 298 people. But they stressed the incident was precipitated by ongoing Russian meddling in eastern Ukraine.
“It’s a solid case that this is an SA-11 fired from eastern Ukraine under conditions the Russians helped to create,” said one senior U.S. intelligence official, who said the American intelligence community is seeking to push back against misinformation the Russian government has disseminated about the case in recent days.
But a senior U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday that the Russian claims are simply unfounded. While Ukrainian military forces have access to SA-11 missiles, the official said, “we are confident no Ukrainian air defense systems were within range of the crash.”
“Ukranian forces have also not fired a single surface-to-air missile during the conflict,” the official said.
The assertions came on a fifth day of tense international posturing over the disaster.
While pro-Russian separatists in control of the crash site having showed little willingness to allow a full-scale investigation being called for by several world powers, there was a breakthrough Tuesday when the separatists let a train loaded with bodies from the site move into territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.
Five days after the Malaysian plane was blown from the sky en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, the refrigerated train finally rolled out of the eastern Ukrainian war zone and into a weedy rail yard in the government-held city of Kharkiv. But it was not immediately clear how many of the 282 corpses that have so far been found — many after having laid out in the sun for several days — were packed onto the train.
A team of Dutch specialists, along with investigators from Interpol, were reportedly on the scene to begin attempting to identify the bodies through a process of labeling and numbering the remains.
The black boxes containing the plane’s flight data also have been turned over to Dutch and Malaysian authorities, as international law requires. And international observers have been allowed to inspect the debris, though only within sight of armed separatist guerrillas.
Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said some observers say the wreckage seems to have been disturbed.
“We are keeping a very close eye on that — looking at the fuselage now compared to what it was on Day One,” he said. “And we have noted some differences.”
Nearly 200 of the plane-crash victims were Dutch citizens, and President Obama visited the Netherlands Embassy in Washington on Tuesday to sign a condolences book.
“Obviously, we’re all heartbroken by what’s happened,” Mr. Obama said. “And this is an opportunity for me to extend, on behalf of all the American people, our deepest condolences over the loss of family and friends; to express our solidarity with the people of the Netherlands, with whom we’ve been friends and had the deepest ties for centuries; and to assure the Dutch people that we will work with them to make sure that loved ones are recovered, that a proper investigation is conducted, and that, ultimately, justice is done.”