Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 Crash: What We Know

July 18, 2014

This post was updated at 11:55 a.m. ET.

One day after the downing of a passenger jet over Ukraine, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council that Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was likely shot down by a missile fired from eastern Ukraine.

“We assess Malaysian Airlines Flight 17… was likely downed by a surface-to-air [SAM] missile, an SA-11, operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine,” Power said today.

Power said that because of the flight’s high altitude, shorter-range missile systems had been ruled out. She noted that one of the missile systems had been reported to be in the area of the crash Thursday, before the plane went down.

Separatists had posted videos and boasts online about downing a Ukrainian plane Thursday, Power said, adding that some of those materials have since been deleted.

“Because of the technical complexity of the SA-11, it is unlikely that the separatists could effectively operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel. Thus we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the systems,” Power added.

The U.S. isn’t aware of any Ukrainian SA-11 systems in the area where the crash occurred, Power said. She added that the Ukrainian military hadn’t fired any anti-aircraft missiles since the fighting began, despite incursions by Russian planes.

Power spoke at an emergency session of the council. The meeting began with all of the diplomats and their staff members standing to observe a moment of silence for victims of the crash.

Audio Recording

As they try to piece together how Flight MH17 was brought down, U.S. experts are analyzing a recording released by Ukraine’s government that it says is a string of intercepted phone calls in which separatist rebels acknowledge that they shot down an airliner.

However, as NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston reports, U.S. intelligence has not yet publicly authenticated the recording.

“Privately, U.S. officials say they suspect separatist rebels were behind the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17,” Dina reports. “U.S. officials say they are still analyzing the audio. They are also using algorithms and mathematics to pinpoint where the missile was fired from.”

The separatists have reportedly said they’ve recovered the black boxes from the plane’s wreckage, but that account isn’t confirmed. Some reports have stated that the flight recorders might be sent to Russia, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Moscow has “no plans to seize the flight recorders,” according to state-owned news agency RT.

Reporter Noah Sneider is in the Donetsk region; he says he has seen separatists near the wreckage.

“They have taken control of the crash site, because they’re in control of this region,” Sneider tells NPR’s Newscast unit. “The Ukrainian forces have a position not too far from here, but for the most part, this stretch of road is controlled by the rebels.

“They were the first ones on the scene,” he adds, “and they’re the ones who are now guarding the entrances to it.”

Saying that Ukrainian authorities still aren’t being given full access to the crash site, Ukraine’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, says security forces will create a corridor so that “Ukrainian experts and international experts will be allowed to hold a vast international investigation.”

That’s according to The Guardian, which quotes Yatsenyuk saying, “This is a crime against humanity. All red lines have been crossed.”

Passengers And Flight Route

Malaysia Airlines executive Huib Gorter says that an “initial cash payment of $5,000 per passenger” is being offered to the victims’ next of kin, to help them with expenses as they cope with the aftermath of Thursday’s crash.

In a news conference at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, Gorter said that Malaysia Airlines and other international carriers had been using the same route, making the crash a “tragic incident that could have happened to any of us.”

He said they are all now avoiding the airspace.

Of the plane, Gorter said that it had been built in 1997 and that all systems were functioning normally when it was last checked out earlier this month.

Gorter gave new details about those aboard the flight, saying that 189 of the flight’s passengers were from the Netherlands; 44 were from Malaysia, and 27 from Australia. People from seven other countries were also on the plane; none of those reported so far are from the U.S. The nationalities of four passengers remain unverified, he said.

Of the flight routes over eastern Ukraine, NPR’s David Schaper reports, “There had been no warnings about that area from the FAA, nor from the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization.” David adds that the airspace over Crimea, which seceded from Ukraine earlier this year, has been under restrictions since April.

Parts of the crash site are still smoldering today; photos from the scene show parts of the plane and personal items scattered around open fields. And a video that reportedly shows the aftermath of the crash shows debris falling through a cloud of thick black smoke.

We’ll update this post as news comes in. Here’s a quick update on what we know about the situation:

  • Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 had been flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur carrying 298 people — 283 passengers and 15 crew. (Early reports of 295 people on board were updated with the news that three infants were among the passengers.)
  • The flight plan filed by the plane’s pilots had requested an altitude of 35,000 feet during their passage over Ukraine, but air traffic control in Ukraine instructed them to fly at 33,000 feet, Malaysia Airlines says.
  • The Boeing 777 went down in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, which for months has been a focal point of fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukraine’s central government.
  • U.S. officials tell NPR the airliner was likely shot down by a surface-to-air missile and that they’re working to determine who fired it.
  • Kiev officials accuse the separatists of firing a missile at the jet. The separatists, Ukraine’s military and Russia have all denied any involvement.
  • The separatists have promised to aid the investigation, reportedly planning a three-day truce to allow investigators to reach the wreckage.
  • More than half of the flight’s passengers were from the Netherlands. The U.S. is trying to determine if any Americans were on board.
  • The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has barred all U.S. flights from using the airspace over eastern Ukraine. The agency notes that no U.S. airlines have been flying routes there.
  • Investigators from the FBI and NTSB will reportedly help analyze the crash — President Obama offered that assistance to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a phone call on Thursday.
  • The plane’s passengers included roughly 100 people who had been traveling to a major global AIDS conference in Melbourne, Australia. The activists and researchers included former International AIDS Society President Joep Lange.

The crash has spurred international shock and outrage. President Obama and many world leaders have called it a tragedy, while others such as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott note that the crash “is not an accident, it is a crime.” Ukraine’s Poroshenko has called it an act of terrorism.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency session today to discuss the crash and call for a full and thorough investigation. It meeting began with all of the diplomats and their staff members standing to observe a moment of silence.

As our Parallels blog notes, a civilian airliner was shot down over Ukraine just 13 years ago. It was one of a handful of passenger jets that have been downed in recent decades; in almost all of those situations, the attacks were found to have been accidents.

The downing of MH17 is the second incident involving Malaysia Airlines in the past four months. The airline and Malaysian officials have been at the center of the search for Flight MH370, which mysteriously disappeared in March. That plane, also a Boeing 777, had 239 people on board.

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