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U.S. intel believes civilian plane might have been mistaken for Ukraine military aircraft

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By McClatchy Newspapers
Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 9:15 p.m.
 

WASHINGTON — American intelligence agencies believe Ukrainian separatists shot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet by mistake, possibly by misreading fuzzy radar images on a sophisticated surface-to-air missile launcher provided by Russia, senior U.S. intelligence officials said on Tuesday.

The launcher that U.S. officials believe fired the SA-11 heat-seeking missile used a rudimentary radar system that gives an incomplete picture of what is flying above, officials said. Such anti-aircraft systems are designed to be linked to other radar that would allow the crew on the ground to distinguish between military and civilian aircraft.

Because separatists did not have secondary radar images available, they probably mistook the airliner for a Ukrainian military plane, the officials said.

The missile that took down the jetliner was probably fired by an “ill-trained crew,” one U.S. official said. “It does appear to be a mistake.”

U.S. officials have not released evidence proving that Russia's military played a direct role in the downing of the jet or in training separatists to use the SA-11 missile system.

But they said on Tuesday that the Russian military has been training Ukrainian separatists to operate anti-aircraft batteries at a base in southwestern Russia.

Since the crash, Russia has increased the movement of military hardware into eastern Ukraine, officials said. On Tuesday morning, U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that about 20 tanks and armored vehicles crossed the border from Russia into eastern Ukraine.

The Russian government is training separatists on a “gigantic” military base near the southwest Russia town of Rostov, officials said. Officials shared satellite images of the base that showed a large buildup of vehicles from June and mid-July. One image was dated June 19 and the other image, which showed dozens of rows of additional vehicles, was dated July 21.

U.S. intelligence agencies have been unable to determine the nationalities or identities of the crew members who launched the missile. U.S. officials said it was possible the SA-11 was launched by a defector from the Ukrainian military who was trained to use similar missile systems.

A train bearing the dead from the downed Malaysian airliner finally reached Ukrainian government-held territory on Tuesday, but the pro-Russia separatists in control of the crash site showed little willingness to allow the full-scale investigation demanded by world leaders.

Five days after the plane was blown out of the sky, refrigerated railcars bearing victims' bodies — gathered up after several days in the sun — rolled out of the war zone and into a weedy railyard in the city of Kharkiv.

The dead will be flown to the Netherlands, the homeland of most of the victims, for identification.

The Dutch government declared Wednesday a day of national mourning as the country prepared for the arrival of the first bodies in the afternoon.

It was unclear how many of the 282 corpses reported found so far were on the train. The crash killed all 298 people aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

Jan Tuinder, the Dutch official in charge of the international team dealing with the dead, said at least 200 bodies were aboard the train and that more remains could be found once the body bags are examined fully.

The bodies was released amid other indications of progress: The black boxes were handed over to Malaysia Airlines, and three airline investigators were given access to the site on Tuesday.

Still, there was no sign of a full investigation, and it was unclear when one could take place.

In Brussels, EU foreign ministers urged Russia to use its influence over the rebels to ensure an independent investigation.

The EU targeted more Russian officials with economic sanctions and travel bans. The ministers stopped there for now but asked the EU's executive arm to draw up more sweeping measures by Thursday if Russia fails to cooperate.

Those sanctions would target Russia's high-tech, energy and weapons industries.

“Russia has not done enough to contribute to a de-escalation of the conflict,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

The EU is Russia's biggest trading partner, and some members are wary of doing too much to antagonize Moscow.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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