The Two Theories Behind How Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 Went Down

The burning remains of the plane from Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17

The downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 remains a mystery. 

London's The Telegraph reports that "locals said they heard two loud bangs before seeing flaming wreckage fall from the sky."

A U.S. official has confirmed the plane was shot down by at least one surface-to-air missile. And Vice President Joe Biden confirmed that this horrific tragedy was "not an accident ... [it was] blown out of the sky." 

The dead toll has risen to 298 people, a number scaled up from 295 to account for three infants not on the original flight records. 

A web of governments are now involved in this crisis. At least 154 people on the flight were Dutch. There were 27 Australians on board, 23 Malaysians, including all 15 crew, and 11 Indonesians. Six passengers from the United Kingdom, four from Germany, four Belgians, three from the Philippines and one Canadian. There are still 47 dead whose nationalities haven't yet been confirmed — some of which may be Americans. A large group of the passengers  were heading to Melbourne for a major AIDS conference, reports say. 

One thing remains a unclear: Why would anyone shoot down a passenger jet?

Theory 1: Pro-Russian seperatists did it: According to Reuters, "Ukraine accused pro-Moscow militants on the eastern part of the country — aided by Russian military intelligence officers — of firing a long-range, Soviet-era SA-11 surface-to-air missile."

When Mashable called Alexander Borodai, self-declared prime minister of Donetsk People's Republic, to ask if the group was responsible for shooting down the plane, he responded: "Listen, we don't have these weapons [to down the 777]."

The missile may have been fired from within the contested Ukrainian region, but a U.S. intelligence official told Fox News the possibility a missile was fired from Russian territory could not be ruled out. Ukrainian officials said that a seperate military transport plane was shot down by a missile fired from Russian territory earlier this week. 

Theory 2: Ukrainian forces did it: "Leaders of the rebel Donetsk People's Republic denied any involvement and said a Ukrainian air force jet had brought down the intercontinental flight," Reuters notes.

This was claims has been partly buttressed by Russia. In televised comments, Russian President Vladimir Putin put the blame for the crash squarely on Ukraine.

“Certainly the state over whose territory this happened bears responsibility for this terrible tragedy,” Putin said at a meeting with advisers, at which a moment of silence for the victims was televised. “This tragedy would not have happened if there was peace in this land.”

Interfax, a Moscow-based news agency, cited an anonymous source, purportedly from the federal agency Rosaviation, saying that Putin’s plane crossed MH17’s path near Warsaw, less than an hour apart. From a distance, the two airliners are of a similar size and coloring, as seen below in a handy graphic from Russian propaganda channel Russia Today.

The evidence: As stated by NBC News, "The Boeing 777, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was flying above the contested area of eastern Ukraine where Russian separatists are battling the Ukrainian government when it crashed into a field 31 miles west of the Russian border." 

Image credit: Washington Post 

Though it's clear a missile brought down the plane, U.S. intelligence officials could not identify the origins of the missile.

According to Reuters, "Separatists have said that they took control of surface-to-air missile system last month and had used it to shoot down a Ukrainian military transport plane that was destroyed on Monday."

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Ukraine Security Service released a recording on Thursday of intercepted phone calls in which separatists "purportedly discussed the shootdown, indicating that they were responsible," the Washington Post reports:

“We have just shot down a plane,” says one man on the tape, identified as Igor Bezler, one of the leaders in the pro-Russian separatist movement in eastern Ukraine, at about 4:40 p.m. local time. “It was 100 percent a passenger aircraft,” another man, identified as “Major,” responds later. “There are lots of corpses of women and children,” another militant says. “They say it’s written Malaysia Airlines on the plane. What was it doing on Ukraine’s territory?”“That means they were carrying spies,” says another voice, identified as that of Nikolay Kozitsin. “They shouldn’t be [expletive] flying. There is a war going on.”

No side — the Ukrainian government, the rebels, or Russia — could have any plausible motives for deliberately shooting down a plane full of innocent, meaning that any takedown was likely have been the result of a disastrous mistake.

U.S. satellites, part of the U.S. Space Based Infrared (SBIR) satellite system, have been focused on the area for some months and are able to detect what sorts of missiles are fired. It has not yet been revealed if these satellites picked up any signatures of the surface-to-air missiles. There are also a number of intelligence assets in the region, and it is likely that the mystery will be solved quickly, launching a massive global response.

"If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told a pre-dawn news conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to remove language that was used without attribution to Reuters, NBC News, and New York Magazine. We apologize to our readers for this violation of our basic editorial standards. Mic has put in place new mechanisms, including plagiarism detection software, to ensure that this does not happen in the future.