Who Has the Black Boxes From the Downed Plane in Ukraine?

Jul 18, 2014 at 1:05 PM ET

A day after a civilian passenger plane was shot down in eastern Ukraine, there’s a scramble to figure out who’s holding the key pieces of evidence from the aircraft.

U.S. officials confirmed Friday morning what Ukrainian government officials had been saying from the beginning: that a surface-to-air missile, likely fired from pro-Russian separatists, brought down the Malaysian Airlines plane with 298 passengers and crew on board. Nearly 200 of those passengers were Dutch citizens, and dozens were AIDS researchers or activists. The flight originated from Amsterdam and was destined for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. President Obama made a statement Friday saying one American was killed in the crash.

Those black boxes could contain key information in understanding how and why Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 crashed in an area of Ukraine effectively ruled by pro-Russian rebels—but there are different stories of the whereabouts of the boxes.

Initial reports circulating Thursday said that pro-Russian rebels had one black box and intended to take it to Moscow. That was according to First Deputy Prime Minister Andriy Purgin of the pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic, a breakaway administration that does not recognize the Ukrainian government in Kiev. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly said if that happened, Russia would not take ownership of the box.

However, one of Purgin’s colleagues, Donetsk Prime Minister Aleksandr Borodai, told a different story. He said Friday that his group planned to hand the black boxes—a second one was later found—to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a regional security organization with international representatives. Borodai is a Russian citizen. OSCE held a video conference with the separatists in which they agreed to allow international reps access to the crash site. Ukrainian government officials previously said they were having trouble reaching the site because separatists control the area. ABC News reported Friday that shots were fired by the rebels at OSCE investigators who approached the crash site.

Meanwhile, an adviser to the region’s Ukrainian governor, Kostyantyn Batozsky, said Ukraine’s emergency services had recovered the black boxes but he did not know where they were.

The New York Times reported that a handful of pro-Russian rebels were wandering through the crash site, despite government requests not to tamper with any wreckage. The separatists have said the plane crash is the fault of the Ukrainian military, and they denied any responsibility. “Why would we do this? We’re not animals,” said one rebel dressed in fatigues, who was at the time “looking through people’s belongings and rifling through guidebooks and bags” of the dead passengers.

The blame game is only adding fuel to an already heated propaganda war between Russia, Ukraine and their respective allies, with each government accusing the other of taking down the plane. One Russian source from the country’s Federal Transport Air Agency went so far as to tell Interfax that the Ukrainian military shot down the passenger jet by accident, and the intended target was actually President Vladimir Putin’s plane. The same unidentified source alleged that Putin’s plane was en route from Moscow to Brazil and was in the area about 35 minutes after the Malaysian Airlines plane crashed, though the head of the Federal Transport Air Agency said they do not disclose information on presidential flight paths.

Another big question that has emerged is whether the pro-Russian rebels even have the missile capabilities required to bring down a passenger plane cruising at an altitude of 33,000 feet. According to U.S. officials, the missile used was a Russian-made anti-aircraft rocket. Separatists boasted on social media just last month that they had acquired a BUK anti-aircraft missile after successfully taking over a Ukrainian military base. The State Security Service of Ukraine released audio of intercepted rebel calls which they claim is evidence that the separatists shot down a civilian plane and that they own the BUK system. “Time and again, Russia has refused to take the concrete steps necessary to de-escalate the situation,” President Obama said Friday at a news conference. The modern-day manufacturer of BUK surface-to-air missiles is Russian company Almaz-Antey, which was sanctioned earlier this week by the United States.

In the last month, pro-Russian rebels shot down multiple Ukrainian military aircraft at lower altitudes, killing Ukrainian soldiers and air crew.

This is the first time in the Ukrainian conflict in which international civilians have been killed on a large scale. Several passengers, possibly as many as 100, on board the plane were headed to Australia for an international AIDS conference.