As the first few critical hours and days pass following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, US officials say they are increasingly confident that pro-Russia separatists – with major help and perhaps direction from Russian military and intelligence services – are responsible for the loss of the airliner and the 298 passengers and crew it carried.
In a statement from the US Embassy in Kiev, American officials reported an increasing amount of heavy weaponry crossing the border from Russia to separatist fighters in Ukraine recently, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and multiple rocket launchers.
More significantly, according to this report, “We also have information indicating that Russia is providing training to separatist fighters at a facility in southwest Russia, and this effort included training on air defense systems.”
“Pro-Russian separatist fighters have demonstrated proficiency with surface-to-air missile systems and have downed more than a dozen aircraft over the past few months, including two large transport aircraft,” the US embassy states. “At the time that flight MH17 dropped out of contact, we detected a surface-to-air missile (SAM) launch from a separatist-controlled area in southeastern Ukraine. We believe this missile was an SA-11.”
The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post cite US officials asserting that Russia supplied separatist rebels with SA-11 missiles – which are capable of hitting aircraft at high altitude – and then hastened to move the missiles back into Russia once it was clear that a civilian airliner and not a Ukrainian military transport had been shot down.
"The assumption is they're trying to remove evidence of what they did," a senior US official briefed on the latest intelligence told the Wall Street Journal.
One major concern at this point is that material from the crash site – including the “black boxes” recording flight data and cockpit communications – is being removed to Russia.
"There are indications that vital evidence has not been preserved in place," Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said Saturday in Kuala Lumpur.
“We are deeply concerned by the Russia-backed separatists’ refusal to allow OSCE monitors safe and unfettered access to the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17,” the US State Department said in a statement Saturday night, referring to monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “The site is not secure, and there are multiple reports of bodies being removed, parts of the plane and other debris being hauled away, and potential evidence tampered with.”
The mobile SA-11 systems include four missiles. One of the launchers photographed going back into Russia was shown with just three missiles.
Meanwhile, international pressure on Russia – specifically, on President Vladimir Putin – continues to grow.
Writing in the Sunday Times newspaper, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned, "If President Putin does not change his approach to Ukraine, then Europe and the West must fundamentally change our approach to Russia.” Ten passengers on MH17 were British.
"Russian-controlled territory, Russian-backed rebels, quite likely a Russian-supplied weapon," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a television interview Sunday. "Russia can't wash its hands of this."
In what he described as “an extremely intensive telephone conversation with the Russian president,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he told Putin that “the window of opportunity to show the world that he intends to help is closing rapidly.”
“Putin must take responsibility vis-à-vis the rebels and show the Netherlands and the world that he is doing what is expected of him,” Mr. Rutte said. Most of the victims of the explosion and crash were Dutch citizens.
The rapidly-developing story took another turn Sunday when a separatist leader said the black boxes had been found and would be turned over to the International Civil Aviation Organization.
"Some items, presumably the black boxes, were found, and they have been delivered to Donetsk and they are under our control," Aleksander Borodai, prime minister of the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic, told a news conference. "There are no specialists among us who could pinpoint the look of the black boxes, but we brought to Donetsk some technical items which could be the black boxes of the airliner."
US officials remain skeptical.
“We need full access” to the site, Secretary of State John Kerry said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Anything that has been removed compromises the investigation.”
"This is the moment of truth for Russia," Secretary Kerry said. "Russia is supporting these separatists. Russia is arming these separatists. Russia is training these separatists, and Russia has not yet done the things necessary in order to try to bring them under control."