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Shot-down Malaysian airliner 'is terrible blow,' British envoy tells Trib

Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-
British Ambassador to the United States Sir Peter Westmacott talks to the Tribune-Review at his residence in Washington, DC on Thursday, July 17, 2014. The Ambassador addressed the possibility of a separatist missile taking down a Malaysian Airlines airplane in Ukraine saying, 'I hope very much that is not what this is. This is a terrible blow if it is true, of course we have to establish the facts.'

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Thursday, July 17, 2014, 11:27 p.m.

WASHINGTON — If Russia supplied missiles to separatists to shoot down a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane carrying 298 people, “the Russians have a substantial number of questions to answer,” Britain's ambassador to the United States told the Tribune-Review.

“People who have been shooting at airplanes have been separatists armed, trained and equipped by the Russians. I hope very much that is not what this is,” Peter Westmacott said. “This is a terrible blow, if it is true. Of course, we have to establish the facts.”

Westmacott was meeting with the Trib about a number of topics when the airliner crashed.

He said the United States and European Union this week made it clear to Russian authorities that “this influx of fighters and equipment and heavy weaponry into Ukraine, in support of separatists' activity, is contrary to the constitution, the law and the rule of the elected government of Ukraine.”

“It is absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “That is why we slapped more sanctions on ... and we have warned them, including amongst several things, about this business of giving these missiles.”

If that happened, Westmacott said, “the Russians have a substantial number of questions to answer.”

Retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters told Fox News it is unlikely the Russian military would have given rebels missile batteries capable of knocking a plane out of the sky.

“It wasn't the separatists, although Russia will try to blame them or blame the Ukrainians,” said Peters, a Fox News contributor. “The Russians have not given the separatists complex, high-altitude air-defense systems. If this airliner was flying at 34,000 feet or any altitude close to that, it was shot down by Russian military air-defense systems perched on the Ukrainian border.”

Eastern Ukraine separatist leader Alexander Borodai told Reuters that Ukrainian military forces shot down the plane. Kiev denied involvement.

Larry Johnson, a former CIA official with counterterrorism experience, told The Associated Press that if pro-Russia rebels fighting Ukrainian government forces have the powerful Russian-made Buk missile launcher, they could have mistaken the civilian airliner for a military transport aircraft before firing a missile.

“The Buk uses a radar acquisition system for targeting,” he said. “These aren't highly trained FAA air traffic controllers. You're tracking something on radar, you see a dot, you get confused. I don't think it was deliberate. I think it was mistaken identity.”

Johnson said the Buk is a sophisticated, difficult-to-operate system used by the Russian and Ukrainian government military.

The Boeing 777 heading to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam was downed in Ukraine about 35 miles from the Russian border.

“Given where this happened, in the midst of all this turmoil, everybody and their brother is going to have a conspiracy theory, based on their politics and how they are aligned,” said Dakota Wood, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative policy group.

If the plane was at cruising altitude, Wood suspects only a state-level or state-sponsored entity would have the capability to shoot it down.

“From the perspective of the U.S. and the European capitals, they will have to look at the evidence presented to them and then make a political decision,” Wood said. “If you do have information that clearly indicates who was to blame, are you willing to share that information, knowing that it's going to carry with it an obligation to do something?”

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at Staff writer Tom Fontaine contributed.

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