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Washington: The US government believes that pro-Russian separatists most likely shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet "by mistake," not realising it was a civilian passenger flight, US intelligence officials said.
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The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the "most plausible explanation" for why the separatists fired what the United States believes was a Russian-made SA-11 surface-to-air missile at Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was that they had mistaken it for some other kind of aircraft.
"Five days into it [following the crash] it does appear to be a mistake," one of the officials said in a briefing for reporters.
The missile was probably fired by "an ill-trained crew" using a system that requires some skill and training, an official said.
The officials said that their conclusion was backed up by intercepted conversations of known pro-Russian separatists, whose voice prints had been verified by US agencies.
The speakers initially bragged about shooting down a transport plane, but later acknowledged that they might have made a mistake, the officials said.
Russian operatives have been spotted on the ground in eastern Ukraine but the US intelligence community had no explicit proof that Russians were with the SA-11 unit that fired on the airliner, officials said.
Although the US had observed a flow of heavy weapons, including air defence systems, into Ukraine from Russia, intelligence agencies had not seen the larger SA-11 missiles being moved into the country before the airliner was downed, officials said.
The Russian military had been training the rebels at a large base in Rostov on various weapons, including air defence systems. But US officials said there was no explicit evidence of the Russians training the separatists on the SA-11 missile batteries.
The downing of the airliner, in which all 298 people aboard were killed, deepened the Ukrainian crisis. Separatist gunmen in the Russian-speaking east have been fighting government forces since pro-Western protesters in Kiev forced out the pro-Moscow president and Russia annexed Crimea earlier this year.
US President Barack Obama's administration has said it is convinced that MH17 was brought down last Thursday by an SA-11 missile fired from territory in eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. It has said the assessment was backed up both by unspecified intelligence information and by extensive social media postings by both the separatists and Ukrainian government.
The intelligence officials said on Tuesday that they had reports of as many as a dozen aircraft being fired on from separatist-controlled areas during two months of fighting between the Ukrainian government and rebel forces. Two of those were large transport planes, the officials said.
One of the officials said that until the Malaysia Airlines plane was hit, most if not all the aircraft targeted had been flying at low altitude.
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Officials said the US did not know that the separatists were in possession or control of SA-11 missile systems until after the Malaysia Airlines plane was struck.
The senior intelligence officials said they chose to brief reporters partly to counter what they called misleading propaganda from Russia and its state-controlled media over the incident.
Allegations that the Malaysian Boeing 777 took evasive action in the air, similar to how a military plane might manoeuvre, had no basis and the reports amounted to "a classic case of blaming the victims", the senior official said.
The claim that the Ukrainian government had shot down the plan was not realistic, as Kiev had no such missile systems in that area, which is clearly under the control of the rebels. That scenario would mean Ukrainian government troops would have had to fight their way into the area, fire at the passenger plane and fight their way out again, the official said.
"That is not a plausible scenario to me," the official said.