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Where Did Ukraine's Rebels Get the Missile Launcher That Allegedly Shot Down the Malaysia Airlines Plane?

Wikimedia Commons

A Ukrainian official said Thursday that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a passenger jet traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down near Snizhe today, a town close to the Ukrainian-Russian border. The plane was carrying 298 people and crashed early evening, local time.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but immediate reports say that the airplane was grounded by a BUK surface-to-air missile system. The BUK, developed by the Soviet Union in 1979, has remained widely in use throughout the former Soviet states, including Ukraine.

General Philip Breedlove, the commander of the U.S. European Command, said that Moscow has been supplying Ukrainian separatists with anti-aircraft weaponry, and has held training sessions along the eastern Ukrainian border, teaching rebels how to operate the systems.

Direct supply of the BUK from Moscow to rebels would be a major escalation in the ongoing conflict. However, on June 29, Russia's official news agency, ITAR-TASS, reported that pro-Russian separatists took a BUK system under their control. The report does not specify whether or not this was theft from the Russian or Ukrainian militaries, only that the rebels had seized control of the weapons system. An AP report, dated yesterday, noted that, “A launcher similar to the BUK missile system was seen by Associated Press journalists near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, which is held by pro-Russia rebels, earlier Thursday.”

Initial reports say that the plane was shot down at a cruising altitude of 32,800 feet. MANPADS, shoulder-mounted weapons systems, are incapable of reaching that altitude, suggesting that a ground-based system like BUK was used. BUK can hit planes at altitudes up to 72,000 feet.

According to the Interfax news agency, leaders of the self-declared independent People’s Republic of Donetsk refuted allegations of involvement, claiming their weapons cannot shoot down planes flying above 10,000 feet. A member of the Republic’s security council declared the Ukrainian military responsible for the attack.

But at the same time as the Malaysian Airlines jetliner went down, Radio Free Europe reported, Ukrainian rebel leader Igor Strelkov announced on Russian social networking site VKontakte that a Ukrainian transport plane had been shot down: "In the vicinity of Torez, we just downed a plane, an AN-26. ... We have issued warnings not to fly in our airspace. We have video confirming. The bird fell on a waste heap. Residential areas were not hit. Civilians were not injured." Strelkov linked to two videos, reportedly of the downed airplane. After news broke that the Malaysian Airlines plane had gone down, he deleted the post about the AN-26.

This incident comes a day after Russia fired its first missiles into Ukraine and the White House laid a new round of sanctions on Russian authorities. President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone earlier today about the sanctions; Reuters reported that Putin briefly mentioned the crash near the end of the phone call.

During a television interview immediately following the crash, Senator John McCain said, “I’m not concluding, but it has the earmarks of a mistaken identification of an aircraft they believed was Ukrainian.” He added, “If it is a result of either separatists or Russian actions mistakenly believing that this was a Ukrainian warplane, I think there’s going to be hell to pay and there should be."

Over the past few days, rebels have shot down two Ukrainian military planes flying at high altitudes. Immediately following the crash, Strelkov wrote on VKontakte: “We warned them not to fly in ‘our sky.’”

This article has been updated.