Airliner's fate the latest bloody mystery in Ukraine's conflict

Ukraine, Russia and pro-Moscow rebels deny responsibility for apparent missile strike

Pro-Russian separatists stand at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region of Ukraine yesterday. Photograph: Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

Pro-Russian separatists stand at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region of Ukraine yesterday. Photograph: Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

Fri, Jul 18, 2014, 01:00

The destruction of an airliner over eastern Ukraine throws the country’s separatist insurgency and rumbling dispute with Russia back into the international spotlight, but may only deepen the confusion and rancour that shroud the crisis.

Since heavily armed and well-drilled gunmen fanned out across Crimea in late February, and Russia claimed they were local volunteers rather than its own forces, Ukraine has been gripped by an unconventional and often bewildering conflict.

In Crimea, Russian servicemen – dubbed “little green men” by Ukraine – in fact worked closely with armed locals to besiege Kiev’s forces in their bases, discourage them from opening fire, and ultimately force them off the peninsula.

After the Kremlin annexed Crimea in March, pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine intensified their campaign to escape Kiev’s grasp and join Russia.

Again, Ukraine and its western allies accused Moscow of co-ordinating an insurgency that has claimed hundreds of lives since Kiev launched an “anti-terrorist” operation in April to crush rebels holding much of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Russia denies aiding the rebels, but it has clearly allowed large numbers of fighters to cross into Ukraine along with considerable amounts of heavy weaponry, including tanks, other armoured vehicles and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles.

The militants and Moscow, in turn, claim that Ukraine’s pro-western revolution, which ousted Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovich in February, was a US-funded and –organised effort to tear the country from Russia’s sphere of influence.

Fog of conflict

Each week only thickens the fog surrounding a conflict that, despite a death toll that grows almost every day, has started to slip from the world’s attention.

In recent days, a series of missile strikes on apartment blocks in Donetsk region have killed well over a dozen civilians, and the terror felt by local people has only been compounded by the insistence of both government and rebel forces that they were not to blame.

Ukraine has also claimed twice in the last week that Russia has struck its military planes with missiles, one from Russian territory and another from a fighter jet belonging to Moscow’s air force: Russia, for its part, has rejected the accusations.

Within minutes of confirmation yesterday that the Malaysian airliner had been brought down in Donetsk region, claim and counter-claim were flying between Kiev and separatist leaders.

The rebels insisted that they did not have a missile system capable of shooting down an airliner at cruising altitude, despite previous reports and photographs suggesting they had seized an advance and extremely powerful Buk system from a Ukrainian base.

The Associated Press news agency said its reporters had seen a rocket system similar to a BUK near the rebel-held town of Snizhne yesterday.

Separatist leader Igor Strelkov also denied involvement in the downing of the Malaysian airliner, but it was noted that yesterday afternoon he claimed that rebel forces had struck a Ukrainian military plane close to where the passenger jet fell.

International outrage over the tragedy will be intense, but may not be enough to bring any clarity to the latest bloody mystery in eastern Ukraine.