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Downed plane could alter course of Ukraine fight

 

PARIS (AP) — The downing of a passenger jet in Ukraine is likely to be a turning point in the country's conflict. But which way it turns depends mainly on who carried out the attack and how convincingly it can be proved to the world.

What we know, and don't, 1 day after Ukraine crash 

JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG, Associated Press

BRUSSELS (AP) — One day after the crash of a Malaysian jetliner carrying 298 people in eastern Ukraine, here's what is known, and what has been claimed:

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THE CAUSE

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Fire engines arrive at the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Hrabove, Ukraine, as the sun sets Thursday, July 17, 2014. Ukraine said a passenger plane carrying 295 people was shot down Thursday as it flew over the country, and both the government and the pro-Russia separatists fighting in the region denied any responsibility for downing the plane. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

U.S. officials and an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister have said a surface-to-air missile brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew Thursday from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people aboard died. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told the U.N. Security Council in New York on Friday the missile was likely fired from a rebel-held area near the Russian border. Independent aviation experts have agreed a missile was the likely cause, but so far, there's been no proof. Ukraine's government, the pro-Russia rebels who oppose it and Russia have all denied shooting down the passenger plane. The official investigation into the crash and its cause has only begun.

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THE "BLACK BOXES"

The whereabouts of the plane's flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder remained unknown Friday. The rebels gave conflicting reports about whether they had found them. Russia's foreign minister said his country had no intention of acquiring them and that they should be given to international aviation organizations. Experts in air accident investigations said the boxes' contents could be key to establishing what happened to the Boeing 777 in the moments before it crashed. The thud of a missile hit or the acoustic shock wave emitted by an explosion could have been picked up by the cockpit recorder, they said.

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THE INVESTIGATION

According to international civil aviation regulations, Ukraine should take the lead in investigating an air crash on its territory. Ukraine has called for an international probe, and the United States has offered to assist. But access to the site in rebel-held lands 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Russian border remained difficult and dangerous Friday. It was still uncertain whether the rebels would allow Ukrainian government officials to pass through their checkpoints. A spokeswoman for Ukraine's emergency services accused rebel militiamen of interfering with recovery operations.

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THE VICTIMS

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Widi Yuwono, the brother of Yuli Hastini, right, shows her sister's family portrait with her Dutch husband John Paulissen and their two children Arjuna and Sri who were on board of the crashed Malaysia Airlines flight 17, at his residence in Solo, Central Java, Indonesia, Friday, July 18, 2014. The Malaysian jetliner that went down in war-torn Ukraine did not make any distress call, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Friday, adding that its flight route had been declared safe by the global civil aviation body. (AP Photo)

By midday, 181 bodies had been recovered, according to emergency workers. A Ukraine Foreign Ministry official said remains of the dead would be taken to government-controlled Kharkiv for identification. Andrei Purgin, a leader of the pro-Russian separatists, said the bodies will be taken to the Black Sea city of Mariupol, also controlled by the government. Malaysia Airlines and relevant governments said the passengers included 192 Dutch, 29 Malaysians, 28 Australians, 12 Indonesians, 10 Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Vietnamese, three Filipinos and one person each from the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Hong Kong. These likely include some with dual nationalities. Some passengers were researchers and activists heading to an AIDS conference in Australia, news that sparked an outpouring of grief across the scientific community. Among them were the well-known Dutch researcher and former president of the International AIDS Society, Joep Lange, and World Health Organization spokesman Glenn Thomas, based in Geneva. Malaysia Airlines regional vice president Huib Gorter told reporters at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport the carrier was making an initial payment of $5,000 to families of all victims to cover their immediate costs.

With suspicion falling heavily on pro-Russian insurgents, the event could provide an opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to disengage from his increasingly uncontrollable allies in eastern Ukraine.

But if enough doubt persists, positions could harden in both Russia and the West. The West could toughen its sanctions against Russia and help Ukraine's military, prompting Putin to dig in for an even higher-stakes battle.

The disaster has already drawn the world closer into the Ukraine conflict, the worst crisis between Russia and the West in a generation.

It also made the fighting painfully real for families from Australia to Amsterdam whose relatives were on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. And it revealed a danger that most people hadn't contemplated: rebels able to strike beyond their own homeland by pointing conventional weapons toward the skies.

WEAKENING THE INSURGENCY

Definitive proof that the insurgents are at fault could be a crucial step toward defusing the months-long conflict, discrediting them so badly that Russia's leadership distances itself from the rebels and their movement fizzles.

Even before the plane was downed, Putin faced competing pressures at home. Some in his administration were urging him to take a more forceful hand in supporting the rebels, while others urged him to step away.

If the rebels can be shown to have committed an act that horrified the world, the doves would likely see their position strengthened. But Putin-watchers caution that with the Russian president, you never really know.

Any change would probably be gradual, especially because Putin has always denied any direct role in supporting the rebels.

HARDENING THE INSURGENCY

It will be difficult, and perhaps impossible, to prove definitively who shot down the Boeing 777 and why. This is an unusually tough investigation in a region where no one is really in charge, propaganda trumps truth and every announcement seems to have an ulterior motive.

If enough doubt remains about who shot down the plane, Russia could plausibly continue to quietly support the rebels, especially as many Russians believe the Ukrainian government was responsible for the attack.

Of course, that would bring consequences for Russia. In Washington, some lawmakers are already pushing President Barack Obama to get tougher on Russia and crank up the sanctions. European leaders face similar calls.

The West might even increase its military aid to Ukraine. And it's anyone's guess where those hostilities might lead.

BAD PRECEDENTS

Few passenger airliners have ever been shot down — and when they are, it can cause lasting political damage.

A U.S. warship mistakenly shot down an Iranian jet in 1988 during the Iran-Iraq war, killing 290 people and prompting widespread anger at U.S. policy and years of legal dispute.

The downing of a Korean Airlines flight by Soviet forces in 1983 and the loss of 269 lives sparked one of the tensest moments of the Cold War and led to an escalation of anti-Soviet sentiment in the U.S. The man in charge of the Soviet Union at the time, Yuri Andropov, was a hero of Putin's.

FROZEN CONFLICT

Lingering uncertainty about Flight 17 could lead to yet another option: condemning eastern Ukraine to a frozen conflict, like others around Russia's edges.

It may take days or longer to know what Putin plans to do. A dragged-out, inconclusive investigation could leave things just as they are, serving Russia's interests by preserving economic ties between eastern Ukraine and Russia and effectively scotching any Ukrainian attempt to join NATO.

The world may never know what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared over the Indian Ocean this year. And it's possible that the motive behind the downing of Flight 17 could remain a mystery as well.

Whether it does could well determine the future of Ukraine.

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Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.

 

 

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