WASHINGTON - The U.S. government has concluded that the passenger jet felled over Ukraine was shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile launched from rebel-held territory and most likely provided by Russia to pro-Moscow separatists, officials said Friday.
While U.S. officials are still investigating the chain of events leading to the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday, they pointed to a series of indicators of Russian involvement. Among other things, military and intelligence officials said there was mounting evidence that a Ukrainian military plane shot down just three days earlier had been fired upon from inside Russian territory by the same sort of missile battery used to bring down the civilian jet.
The intelligence persuaded President Barack Obama to publicly lay responsibility at least indirectly at the door of the Kremlin. Speaking at the White House, he tried to channel international indignation toward Russia for what he called an "outrage of unspeakable proportions." Obama said the episode should be "a wake-up call for Europe" and "should snap everybody's heads to attention" about what is going on in Ukraine, where a pro-Russia insurgency has become an international crisis.
Without going into detail about the intelligence he had been shown, Obama said the separatists had been armed and trained "because of Russian support." High-flying aircraft cannot be shot down without sophisticated equipment and training, he added, "and that is coming from Russia."
He singled out President Vladimir Putin of Russia, accusing him of waging a proxy war that led to the tragedy. "He has the most control over that situation," Obama said, "and so far, at least, he has not exercised it."
Russia denied involvement and suggested that Ukraine's military might have been responsible, an assertion Ukraine rejected. Putin called for talks, saying: "All sides to the conflict must swiftly halt fighting and begin peace negotiations. It is with great concern and sadness that we are watching what is happening in eastern Ukraine. It's awful; it's a tragedy."
As investigators tried to sort out control of the crash site in the middle of a war zone and families mourned the victims, the global revulsion at the downing of the plane grew, particularly with the news that a number of AIDS researchers were among the dead. European leaders joined Obama in calling for an international investigation unimpeded by combatants and talked about further steps against Moscow, including curbing arms sales.
While separatists guarding the crash site allowed some Ukrainian government rescue teams to enter and begin collecting bodies Friday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the armed rebels had prevented its monitors from gaining full access to the site in order to secure a safe route for the investigation and salvaging operations.
One rebel even fired into the air as the monitors were leaving, according to a spokesman for the organization, Michael Bociurkiw, who was there. Bociurkiw said bodies in the field were beginning to bloat. A separatist leader said the governments of the Netherlands and Malaysia had asked the rebels informally not to disturb the crime scene, but that there were not enough refrigerators to keep the bodies there.
Among the 298 people who died when the plane came down was Quinn Lucas Schansman, 19, who was born in New York to a Dutch father and had dual American and Dutch citizenship. Schansman had been studying in Amsterdam when he decided to fly to Indonesia, where his family was on a three-week vacation. "He was headed over there to meet them," said Katinka Wallace, a relative.
Schansman's Facebook page indicated that he had moved to Amsterdam on April 24 and had been in a relationship with a young woman since last year. His favorite quotation was "I have a dream!" On Friday, friends and relatives posted remembrances in Dutch. "Dear cousin and friend, we're going to miss you," one wrote.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Boeing 777-200 was struck by a Russian-made SA-11 missile fired from a rebel-controlled area near the border in Ukraine. U.S. analysts were focused on an area near the small towns of Snizhne and Torez, about midway between the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Their determination was based on an analysis of the launch plume and trajectory of the missile, as detected by a U.S. spy satellite. But the analysis did not pinpoint the origin of the missile launch or identify who launched it. "Those are the million-dollar questions," said a senior Pentagon official who, like others, insisted on anonymity to discuss details of the analysis.
Though the separatists claimed to have captured a Ukrainian SA-11 battery in late June, a senior U.S. official said the system was not believed to be operational. "We have high confidence that it was not a Ukrainian system," the official said of the battery that shot down the Malaysian plane. "We have reason to suspect that it could be a Russian-supplied system."
The downing of the Ukrainian military transport plane Monday figured prominently in the evaluations. Western officials said there were strong indications that the missile that struck that plane, an Antonov-26, came from the Russian side of the border, although the episode is still under investigation.
It was not clear whether the same missile battery had brought down the Malaysian aircraft Thursday but officials said that, either way, they believed the unit had been transported over the border from Russia in recent days. The Ukrainian government released audio in which separatist rebels seemed to be discussing an SA-11 missile system that was moved into eastern Ukraine from Russia just before the Malaysian plane was destroyed.
U.S. officials said that while they had not authenticated the tape, they had no reason to doubt it, and noted that the accents of the speakers and the scenario described seemed to fit existing information.
In recent months, Russians have funneled tanks, rockets, artillery and anti-aircraft weapons to the separatists, according to U.S. and European officials. Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the top NATO commander, warned last month that the Russians had trained separatists to operate some of the heavy weaponry, although he did not mention SA-11 missiles specifically.
At a briefing Friday, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the top Pentagon spokesman, said it would have been difficult for separatists to fire the SA-11 without Russian help. "It strains credulity to think that it could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance," he said.
Kirby raised the possibility that the Russian military had transported the system into Ukraine and even fired it. "Whether it was a system that was driven across the border by Russians and then handed off, we don't know," he said.
Separatist leaders Friday denied taking down the Malaysian plane, and Russia's foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, dismissed Ukraine's accusations of Russian involvement. "In the last few months, I have not heard practically any truthful statements from Kiev," he said.
The Russian Defense Ministry said at least five Ukrainian air defense systems were within range to down the plane. It added that the flight path and crash site were within two areas where Ukraine was operating a long-range S-200 air defense system, and where three squadrons were deployed with Buk-M1 medium-range air-defense systems.
Ukraine denied that any of its forces had been involved, and U.S. officials said they believed that denial. "The Boeing was outside the zone of possible destruction by the anti-aircraft forces of Ukraine," Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, told reporters.
After months of trying to gently prod European allies to take tougher action against Moscow for its intervention in Ukraine, Obama decided to raise the diplomatic temperature Friday on both Russia and U.S. allies. He sent his U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, to the Security Council to describe what she called "credible evidence" that the separatists were responsible.