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Pro-Russian Separatists Accused Of Shooting Down Malaysia Jetliner


There are two big stories overseas that we are following this morning. In a moment, we'll turn to our reporter in Gaza where Israel began a ground offensive yesterday. First, a tragedy in eastern Ukraine - a Malaysia Airlines jet with nearly 300 people onboard crashed there yesterday. There is little mystery as to why this happened. The plane appears to have been shot down. The big question is who's responsible. U.S. intelligence agencies say it was taken down by an anti-aircraft missile, and we should remember this is a region controlled by pro-Russian separatists who have shot down several Ukrainian military planes. Russia is suggesting a missile system controlled by Ukraine's government was fired yesterday. NPR's Jackie Northam has been following these developments, and she's here in the studio with us. Good morning Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning David.

GREENE: So let's start with exactly what we know at this point.

NORTHAM: OK, we know that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was on route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and about four hours into the flight, it exploded and crashed into a field in eastern Ukraine. And there was no distress call. Debris from the wreckage is scattered for several miles which indicates that the plane did break up in midair - there are no survivors. Most of the passengers onboard were Dutch, although there were some AIDS experts on board, as well, that were on their way to a conference in Melbourne, Australia. No word yet on any American passengers, but that's not unusual because the State Department will wait until they have notified all the next of kin before they say anything. The other thing that we know is that this plane crashed in a region that's seen some very heavy fighting over the past few months between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists. And at the moment, as you say, this area is controlled by the rebels.

GREENE: It's been a really unstable area. And we're hearing from intelligence and military officials - U.S. officials. They say the aircraft was brought down by surface to air missile. But this is a border area. I mean, are these intelligence agencies are able to confirm where this might have been fired from? - whether it was coming from a rebel area in Ukraine, somewhere else in Ukrainian or maybe even over the board in Russia itself?

NORTHAM: Yeah, that's right. Well, you're right. The intelligence community believes that this was a ground air missile but one that has the capability of bringing down a plane at 33,000 feet which was the cruising altitude of flight MH17. They have not determined where the missile was fired from. So, you know, there's a lot of finger-pointing going on. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, says Ukraine bears responsibility because it's renewed its attacks on the rebels. Ukraine says it was the rebels who shot down the plane and blame Russia for supplying the separatist with the weaponry needed to do that. The rebels deny it and say Ukraine is responsible. But as you mentioned earlier, the separatists have claimed responsibility for shooting down two Ukrainian military planes earlier this week.

GREENE: And, you know, Jackie, there's some pretty incredible audio that has been floating around the Internet, reportedly, of conversations between rebels and Russian intelligence officers, talking about this place. What are we hearing there?

NORTHAM: Well, just - these conversations were released by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry. So let's keep that in mind. But in one, a rebel tells a Russian military officer that they've just shot down a plane, and in another one, a rebel tells another Ukrainian - Russian official that it was a commercial airline and not a military plane. So again, these were released by Ukrainian officials, but, you know, David, whoever's responsible - the implications of shooting down a commercial airline are huge.

GREENE: And it sounds on those audio recordings, whoever's talking is actually surprised that it turned out to be a commercial jetliner.

NORTHAM: That's the indication that you're getting.

GREENE: Briefly, Jackie, I mean, you mentioned so many questions to answer - can people actually get to this crash site and do the investigating? There's been so much fighting here.

NORTHAM: Well, that's unclear right now, whether the rebels will let international investigators into the area. There are rescue workers, but that also brings up concerns that evidence is being tampered with or contaminated or there's looting or there's just, you know, spiriting away whatever evidence might be there to determine who did this.

GREENE: All right, clearly a story that we'll be following. NPR's Jackie Northam, joining us in the studio. Jackie, thank you.

NORTHAM: Thank you David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.