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Evidence of MH17 disaster pointing towards pro-Russian separatists

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Debris is pictured at the site of Thursday's Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash

Debris is pictured at the site of Thursday's Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash

People hold candles and lay flowers outside the Dutch embassy in Kiev to commemorate victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash (AP)

People hold candles and lay flowers outside the Dutch embassy in Kiev to commemorate victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash (AP)

Debris is pictured at the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash, near the village of Grabovo in the Donetsk region July 18, 2014

Debris is pictured at the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash, near the village of Grabovo in the Donetsk region July 18, 2014

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Debris is pictured at the site of Thursday's Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash

Suspicions are hardening in Western capitals that pro-Russian separatists were responsible for bringing down Malaysia Airways Flight MH17 over worn-torn eastern Ukraine.

Although officials in London remain wary of seeking to attribute blame ahead of any formal investigation, analysts believe there is strong circumstantial evidence pointing in the direction of rebels.

If, as some suspect, a missile system supplied - and possibly even operated - by Russia is found to have been involved the clamour for punitive economic sanctions against Moscow is likely to become irresistible.

The Boeing 777-200 airliner was cruising at 33,000ft when it disappeared off the radar screens - way above the range of the shoulder-launched Manpads missile systems which have typically been used by the rebels in a series of attacks on Ukrainian military aircraft.

Experts now believe it is most likely to have been hit by a Russian-built Buk radar-controlled surface-to-air missile (SAM) system - known in the West as the SA-11 "Gadfly" - which can reach targets up to 72,000ft, according to the IHS Jane's global information group.

Last month, the rebels claimed to have captured a number of Buk units when they overran a Ukrainian military base - posting pictures of their trophies on the internet.

Concerns that they had acquired a longer range SAM capability were heightened when they then claimed to have brought down a Ukrainian air force Antonov An-26 transport plane flying at an altitude of 21,000ft.

Suspiciously in the eyes of some, the claims of both the Buk capture and and the An-26 shoot-down quickly disappeared from the insurgents' websites after the news broke of the crash of MH17.

Alternatively, if the separatists were not using captured Buk units, they could have been supplied directly by the Russians. Arms are thought to have been flowing freely across the border - including heavy equipment such as tanks.

Keir Giles, an associate fellow at the Chatham House foreign affairs think tank, said that if Buks were moved across the border, they could well have been spotted by Western intelligence agencies.

"Western countries will be reviewing very urgently their intelligence tracking the movement of heavy weapons in the area of the Russian border and into Ukraine," he said.

"We may in the next few days see some Western governments or Nato releasing classified information or imagery to show what systems may indeed have come across the border.

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"If the air defence system involved is indeed a SA-11 (Buk) variant as had been alleged, then we are taking about big tracked vehicles, not easily concealed."

Operating the Soviet-era Buk system - which comprises a command post vehicle, a vehicle-mounted target-acquisition radar, and one or more launchers armed with four radar-guide missiles - requires highly trained crews.

Mr Giles said that if the separatists had tried to use them without the proper training, it could have accounted for the catastrophic error which led to the shooting down of a civilian airliner.

"If they were being supplied (by Russia) you would assume they would come with trained crews but it is not impossible they might have found individuals from outside the Russian military, possibly even in the local area, who were capable - if not competent - in operating them," he said.

"If that level of capability did not extend to distinguishing a civil airliner from a Ukrainian military transport, this would be a highly irresponsible thing to do."

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary who chairs the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, said sanctions against Moscow should be dramatically toughened if it was found Russian-supplied weaponry brought down the plane.

"If it is established, which I think must be seen as very likely, that this missile attack came from the insurgents using equipment most likely obtained from Russia then that must be a very powerful argument for very wide ranging economic and financial sanctions that would do serious damage if Mr Putin does not change his policy as an immediate response," he told BBC Radio 4's The World At One.

Sir Malcolm said it could not be ruled out that those firing the weapon had been Russian special forces operating with the rebels.

"It is not impossible that the missile system that brought down this aircraft was actually being operated by the Russian special forces or other people not wearing Russian military uniforms but in fact coming from across the border."

"Was it insurgents, poorly trained? Or was it Russian people who just made a mistake, as sometimes happens."


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