MH17: Is this what brought down the Malaysia Airlines flight?

A Russian-made missile system parked in or passing through the rebel-controlled village of Torez, near the crash site.
A Russian-made missile system parked in or passing through the rebel-controlled village of Torez, near the crash site.

It is a photograph that could play a crucial role in proving the deadliest of deeds. Or else it could be dismissed as a fake, nothing more than crude propaganda.

At the weekend, Ukraine's security services (SBU) released photographs and videos it said proved that Russian-made BUK-M1 surface-to-air missile systems were inside the rebel-held area shortly before Malaysian Airlines MH17 crashed to the ground.

Among the images, said to have been taken on the day of the tragedy, was one of a missile system, either parked or passing through the rebel-controlled town of Torez, barely five miles from where Boeing 777 tore into fields of wheat and sunflowers. According to Vitaliy Nayda, head of the SBU's counterintelligence unit, the image was "evidence" of Russia's involvement.

But on Tuesday, when The Independent visited the site where the image was taken and showed it to local people, they claimed they had seen no such missile truck and dismissed the image as hoax.

"All the Ukrainian media is lying," said one man, Andrei Sushparnov. "We have no missiles. If we did, would the Ukrainians be bombing our cities?"

The Ukrainians have not yet revealed how they got the photograph or who took it. But the image, and other similar material, has become part of a raging information war.

The Ukrainian authorities, along with the US and Britain, have used such images and material taken from social media, to try and support their claim that pro-Russian rebels most likely shot down the plane with a surface-to-air missile.

US intelligence officials told American media they believe the missile was fired somewhere in the area around the towns of Torez and Snizhne. Other images taken on the day of the incident show a BUK missile system, possibly the same one, in Snizhne. Elsewhere, members of the public have located what they claim are images that show the trail of a missile, and even track-marks on the BUK, in the Torez area.

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"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 said in a statement posted on the website of its embassy in Kiev.

Yet many people living in the rebel-held areas appear to have little time for such allegations. Tuned in largely to Russian media channels, many claim the plane was shot down by the Ukrainians to blacken the name of the Donetsk People's Republic and its fighters.

Some are ready to believe all manner of claims and rumours, many of them emanating from Russia, such as the Ukrainians shot down the plane because they believed it belonged to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I saw this picture on the internet. But there was no such vehicle parked here," said Svetlana Eivashenko, a 50-year woman with red hair. "I wish Ukraine would leave Donetsk in peace."

The photograph released by Ukrainian intelligence appears to have been taken from somewhere on the forecourt of the Pit Stop Market and petrol station, located close to the junction of Gagarin and 50th Anniversary of the USSR streets in central Torez. Nearby is a large statue dedicated to coal miners, for whom this area of eastern Ukraine is famous.

The staff at the petrol station said none of them had been on duty last Thursday. A woman who gave her name as Diana and who worked in a toy shop called Briefcase, said he had been at work last Thursday and had seen nothing, even when she stepped out for a cigarette break. "I did not see that, for sure," she said.

She said the conflict between government troops and the rebel fighters, which had begun in the spring, had disrupted everyone's lives. It was particularly difficult for children, of which she had two, a boy and a girl. "There is fear. If we go out in the morning and come home safe in the evening, then it is a good day," she said.

The Independent had been helped to the location by a Russian-speaking American citizen journalist, Aric Toler who was able to identify it using a combination of online image searches and checking court records that referred to a hardware shop shown in the image. Mr Toler's work was posted on the crowd-funded Bellingcat investigative journalism site.

Mr Toler also used an online tool that estimates the time of day that an image has been taken based on shadows. He estimated that it had been taken around noon. He estimated that a second photograph of the BUK system, said to have been taken closer to Snizhne, was captured a couple of hours later.

Mr Toler admitted there was no irrefutable proof the image was taken on July 17 as claimed by the Ukrainians. But he said an internet search revealed the picture did not appear before the 17th.

The Independent spent about 90 minutes at the location in Torez, at times drawing a number of animated locals who looked at the image and shook their heads.

The only hint of a positive answer came indirectly from a woman working in the Sport betting shop. She had also been off last Thursday but her colleague, whom she contacted on the telephone, said she had "heard something heavy passing by".

No evidence missile came from Russia

Meanwhile, Senior US intelligence officials said Tuesday that Russia was responsible for "creating the conditions" that led to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, but they offered no evidence of direct Russian government involvement.

The intelligence officials were cautious in their assessment, noting that while the Russians have been arming separatists in eastern Ukraine, the US had no direct evidence that the missile used to shoot down the passenger jet came from Russia.

The officials briefed reporters Tuesday under ground rules that their names not be used in discussing intelligence related to last week's air disaster, which killed 298 people.

The plane was likely shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the intelligence officials said, citing intercepts, satellite photos and social media postings by separatists, some of which have been authenticated by US experts.

But the officials said they did not know who fired the missile or whether any Russian operatives were present at the missile launch.

Malaysian air crash investigators take pictures of wreckage at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Photo / AP

They were not certain that the missile crew was trained in Russia, although they described a stepped-up campaign in recent weeks by Russia to arm and train the rebels, which they say has continued even after the downing of the commercial jetliner.

In terms of who fired the missile, "we don't know a name, we don't know a rank and we're not even 100 percent sure of a nationality," one official said.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the US was still working to determine whether the missile launch had a "direct link" to Russia, including whether there were Russians on the ground during the attack and the degree to which Russians may have trained the separatists to launch such a strike.

"We do think President Putin and the Russian government bears responsibility for the support they provided to these separatists, the arms they provided to these separatists, the training they provided as well and the general unstable environment in eastern Ukraine," Rhodes said in an interview with CNN.

He added that heavy weaponry continues to flow into Ukraine from Russia following the downing of the plane.

The intelligence officials said the most likely explanation for the downing was that the rebels made a mistake. Separatists previously had shot down 12 Ukrainian military airplanes, the officials said.

The officials made clear they were relying in part on social media postings and videos made public in recent days by the Ukrainian government, even though they have not been able to authenticate all of it.

They cited a video of a missile launcher said to have been crossing the Russian border after the launch, appearing to be missing a missile.

But later, under questioning, the officials acknowledged they had not yet verified that the video was exactly what it purported to be.

Despite the fuzziness of some details, however, the intelligence officials said the case that the separatists were responsible for shooting down the plane was solid.

Other scenarios - such as that the Ukrainian military shot down the plane - are implausible, they said. No Ukrainian surface-to-air missile system was in range.

From satellites, sensors and other intelligence gathering, officials said, they know where the missile originated - in separatist-held territory - and what its flight path was. But if they possess satellite or other imagery of the missile being fired, they did not release it Tuesday.

A graphic they made public depicts their estimation of the missile's flight path with a green line. The jet's flight path was available from air traffic control data.

In the weeks before the plane was shot down, Russia had stepped up its arming and training of the separatists after the Ukrainian government won a string of battlefield victories.

- Independent, AP

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