U.S. scrambles to determine who fired Russian-made missile at jet

WASHINGTON Sat Jul 19, 2014 5:23am IST

1 of 2. Comparison of selected surface-to-air missiles around the world.

Credit: Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Satellite images show a plume of smoke left by the ground-to-air missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines flight 17. Infrared sensors recorded the moment when the airliner exploded.

As U.S. analysts sift through fragments of intelligence to try to pin down who fired the missile and why, and where it came from, they are running into difficult questions.

The U.S. assessment, outlined by Ambassador Samantha Power at the U.N. Security Council on Friday, is that the airliner was "likely downed by a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine."

U.S. officials said authorities were trying to determine who fired the Russian-made missile, whether Russian operatives aided in the attack and how the weapon arrived on territory held by Ukrainian rebels backed by Moscow.

Those determinations could be key to any international response to the downing of the plane that killed all 298 people aboard and sharply raised the stakes in Ukraine's conflict.

The American analysts have based some of their conclusions so far on technical data from advanced spy satellites whose principal use is to provide early warning of intercontinental ballistic missile launches.

PLUME OF SMOKE

The satellite data included an image of a plume of smoke left in the missile's trail that allowed analysts to calculate a launch area near the Russia-Ukraine border which is dominated by pro-Russian separatist fighters, officials said.

It also included data culled from infrared sensors, which detected the explosion of the jet, they said.

Although the possible launch area extends to both sides of the border, the most likely location is in rebel-held territory close to where the wreckage of the plane plummeted from the sky, U.S. officials said.

The Pentagon, White House and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power all publicly suggested that because the SA-11 was a complicated weapon, whoever fired it may have had to have had Russian training or help in order to operate it.

"It strains credulity to think that (the missile) could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance," Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters.

But U.S. officials stopped short of accusing Russia fighters of playing a direct role in launching the missile. No determination had yet been made as to "who pushed the button," one official said.

The missile may have been launched by either a pro-Russian Ukrainian separatist or a Russian national, the officials said.

They said they did not believe the missile was launched by a pro-government Ukrainian and were working on the assumption that it was fired by either a pro-Russian Ukrainian separatist or a Russian national.

LIMITS OF INTELLIGENCE

In an indication of the limitations of U.S. intelligence capabilities, officials said they were unsure how the missile arrived in the launch area.

There was no U.S. intelligence showing an SA-11 crossing the border into Ukraine, the Pentagon said.

Power said that separatists had been spotted hours before the incident with an SA-11 system "at a location close to the site where the plane came down." She said a Western reporter had indicated early on Thursday that an SA-11 system was reported near Snizhne, in eastern Ukraine.

Power told the Security Council the United States was not aware of any similar Ukrainian-controlled missile systems in the area. "Since the beginning of the crisis, Ukrainian air defenses have not fired a single missile," she said.

   An official said the satellites used to detect the missile, known as Defense Support Program (or DSP) satellites, orbit the Earth around 36,000 kilometers over the equator, and are operated from a control station at Buckley Air Force base in Colorado.

(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols and Missy Ryan; Editing by David Storey, Bernard Orr)

Photo

After wave of QE, onus shifts to leaders to boost economy

DAVOS, Switzerland - Central banks have done their best to rescue the world economy by printing money and politicians must now act fast to enact structural reforms and pro-investment policies to boost growth, central bankers said on Saturday.

World Wrap

Reuters Showcase

Photo

Vodafone Tax Case

India's Vodafone decision eases tax worries for Shell, others  Full Article 

Facebook Earnings

Facebook Earnings

Facebook tops Wall Street revenue target in 4th quarter.  Full Article 

Japanese Hostage

Japanese Hostage

Islamic State said to set new deadline for hostage swap  Full Article 

Cricket World Cup

Cricket World Cup

Batting holds key for team India in World Cup  Full Article 

Photo

Australian Open

Serena fends off Keys to book blockbuster Sharapova final   Full Article | Related Story 

Road To Development

Road To Development

Build better roads in developing world to bolster food supplies - study  Full Article 

Photo

Laser Pioneer Dies

Laser's co-inventor, Nobel laureate Charles Townes, dead at 99  Full Article 

New ODI Record

New ODI Record

Sri Lanka's Sangakkara breaks ODI record for dismissals  Full Article 

Rohingya Muslims

Rohingya Muslims

Rohingya refugees say traffickers in Malaysia abuse and kill.  Full Article 

Reuters India Mobile

Reuters India Mobile

Get the latest news on the go. Visit Reuters India on your mobile device  Full Coverage