A Malaysian air crash investigator (right) inspects the
crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the
village of Rozsypne, in the Donetsk region. Photo by
The US government believes pro-Russian separatists most
likely shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet "by mistake," not
realising it was a civilian passenger flight.
Officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the
"most plausible explanation" for the destruction of the plane
was that the separatists fired a Russian-made SA-11 missile
at it after mistaking it for another kind of aircraft.
"Five days into it (following the crash) it does appear to be
a mistake," one of the officials said in a briefing for
The officials said that their assessments were backed up by
evidence from social media and by intercepted conversations
of known pro-Russian separatists, whose voice prints had been
verified by US agencies.
The speakers initially bragged about shooting down a
transport plane, but later acknowledged that they might have
made a mistake, the officials said. All 298 people aboard
The downing of flight MH-17 deepened the Ukrainian crisis and
prompted international outrage. Separatists in the
Russian-speaking east have been fighting the Ukrainian
military since pro-Western protesters in Kiev forced out the
Moscow-allied president earlier this year.
US President Barack Obama's administration has said it is
convinced the airliner was brought down last Thursday by an
SA-11 ground-to-air missile fired from territory in eastern
Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
US officials said earlier that satellite data showed a plume
of smoke left in the missile's trail that allowed analysts to
calculate a launch area near the Russia-Ukraine border. They
also said infrared sensors detected the explosion of the jet.
WHO PULLED THE TRIGGER?
The intelligence officials said they did not know at this
stage who had actually fired the missile.
"We don't know who literally was operating the system that
day but more generally we have the picture of evidence that
says the Russians have been providing these types of systems,
the Russians have been providing training," said a senior US
administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The intelligence officials said they had reports that as many
as a dozen aircraft had been fired on from
separatist-controlled areas during two months of fighting
between the Ukrainian government and rebel forces. Two were
large transport planes, the officials said.
Most if not all of the aircraft which had been targeted had
been flying at low altitude. When it was hit the Malaysian
airliner was at 33,000 feet.
The intelligence officials said the US did not know that the
separatists were in possession or control of SA-11 missile
systems until after the Malaysia Airlines plane was struck.
Separatist leaders have said they did not bring the Malaysian
plane down. Russia has denied involvement.
The US intelligence officials dismissed Russian assertions
that the plane may have been brought down by a surface to air
missile fired by Ukrainian government forces, or by a
Ukrainian government warplane.
They said the air-to-air missile theory was backed by little
or no evidence, and that while the Ukrainian government has
had access to SA-11 missiles, there was no evidence they had
deployed them anywhere near the region where the plane
The intelligence officials said that for several weeks the
United States had been tracking the movement by Russia of
large amounts of weapons, including tanks, armored personnel
carriers and multiple-launch rocket systems, across the
The officials also said that rebels were being trained at a
large military base near the city of Rostov in southwestern