American intelligence agencies believe Ukrainian separatists shot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet by mistake, possibly by misreading fuzzy radar images on a sophisticated surface-to-air missile launcher provided by Russia, senior US intelligence officials say.
Last week's crash killed 298 people, one of them a New Zealand passport holder.
The launcher that US officials believe fired the SA-11 heat-seeking missile used a rudimentary radar system that gives an incomplete picture of what is flying above, officials said. Such anti-aircraft systems are designed to be linked to other radar that would allow the crew on the ground to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft.
Because separatists did not have secondary radar images available, they probably mistook the airliner for a Ukrainian military plane, the officials said.
The missile that took down the jetliner was probably fired by an "ill-trained crew", said one US official who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly on the issue. "It does appear to be a mistake."
US officials have not released evidence proving that Russia's military played a direct role in the downing of the jet or in training separatists to use the SA-11 missile system.
But they said on Tuesday (local time) that the Russian military has been training Ukrainian separatists to operate anti-aircraft batteries at a base in southwestern Russia.
Since the crash, Russia has increased the movement of military hardware into eastern Ukraine, officials said. On Tuesday morning, US intelligence agencies confirmed that about 20 tanks and armoured vehicles crossed the border from Russia into eastern Ukraine.
The Russian government is training separatists on a "gigantic" military base near the southwest Russia town of Rostov, officials said. Officials shared satellite images of the base that showed a large buildup of vehicles from June and mid-July. One image was dated June 19 and the other image, which showed dozens of rows of additional vehicles, was dated July 21.
US intelligence agencies have been unable to determine the nationalities or identities of the crew members who launched the missile. US officials said it was possible the SA-11 was launched by a defector from the Ukrainian military who was trained to use similar missile systems.
- CHICAGO TRIBUNE