HRABOVE, Ukraine (AP) — Four months after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine, The Associated Press has obtained video that shows how close the burning passenger jet came to hitting village homes and suggests that residents first assumed it was a Ukrainian military plane that had been struck.
The amateur footage, filmed by a resident of Hrabove, shows people reacting in alarm as wreckage blazes only a few meters away from their homes on the afternoon of July 17. The video is perhaps the first taken immediately after the plane came down.
The ultimate cause of the MH17 disaster is the subject of major diplomatic disputes. Ukraine and Western government say Russia-backed separatist fighters fired the rockets that felled the plane, while state-run television in Moscow over the weekend produced evidence it claims places blame with Ukraine's air force.
All 298 people aboard the Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were killed when it was shot down over a rebel-held area. Charred remains of the aircraft are scattered around fields over an area of 20 square kilometers (8 square miles).
Workers on Sunday began collecting debris from the crash site, under the supervision of Dutch investigators and officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The recovered fragments will be loaded onto trains and taken to the government-controlled eastern city of Kharkiv. The investigation into what happened to MH17 is being conducted there and in the Netherlands.
The recovery operations have been delayed amid continued fighting between government troops and separatist fighters. A truce was agreed in September, but hostilities have raged on nonetheless.
In the video obtained on Sunday by AP, residents of the village of Hrabove can be heard asking about the whereabouts of the pilot. This is significant because multiple Ukrainian military planes had been shot down by this time, and their pilots and crew regularly taken prisoner by rebel forces.
Three days before the MH17 was brought down, rebels claimed responsibility for shooting down an Antonov-24 military transport plane.
The downing of MH17 stunned Ukrainian defense officials. They argued that the aircraft must have been targeted by Russian fighter jets, as it was flying at an altitude of 6,500 meters (21,300 feet), far beyond the reach of the Igla portable surface-to-air missiles then being used by rebel fighters. The plane was flying at 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) when it was hit.
On the day after the Antonov-24 was downed, the Moscow-based LifeNews television channel broadcast the questioning by rebels of a man identified as the Ukrainian plane's pilot.
The afternoon that MH17 was brought down, LifeNews reported unnamed rebel sources as saying another Ukrainian transport plane has been downed. Other pro-Kremlin media issued similar reports. They quickly dropped that account as it became evident that a civilian aircraft had in fact been brought down.
The reaction of villagers in the new video suggests their immediate assessment too was that another Ukrainian plane had been struck.
One person can be heard to say: "And where is the pilot?"
Another person answers: "Who the hell knows?"
In another exchange, a person is heard questioning whether more than one plane had crashed, since there was so much debris. People around him quickly correct him to say only one aircraft had come down.
The account favored by most Western government is that the plane was brought down by an SA-11 missile launcher — also known as a Buk —fired by rebels. U.S. government officials have said the Russians might have provided technical help to the rebels to operate the system.
The separatists have denied any involvement in shooting down the plane.
But just three hours before MH17 was downed, the AP reported the passage of a Buk through the rebel-held town of Snizhne near where the plane was downed. A highly placed rebel officer told the AP in an interview after the disaster that the plane had been shot down by a mixed team of rebels and Russian military personnel who believed they were targeting a Ukrainian military plane.
Separatists officials also bragged in a June 29 report carried by Russia's Tass news agency that they had gotten hold of some Buk missile systems from Ukrainian stocks, though they didn't say how many or describe their condition.
Moscow has vehemently denied it has provided any military hardware to rebel forces, and since the Malaysia Airlines incident has advanced several alternative theories about the plane's fate.
Over the weekend, Russian state television released a satellite photograph it claims shows that a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down MH17.
The photo released by Russia's Channel One and Rossiya TV stations purportedly shows a Ukrainian fighter plane firing an air-to-air missile in the direction of the plane. The channels said they got the photo from a Moscow-based organization, which had received it via email from a man who identified himself as an aviation expert.
But several bloggers said the photograph was a forgery, citing a cloud pattern to prove the photo dates back to 2012, and several other details that seem incongruous.
Mark Solonin, a Russian author who is an engineer by training, said in his blog that both aircraft looked disproportionate to the landscape and concluded that their images were crudely edited into a satellite picture.
Others noted that the commercial airliner in the photo appears to be of a different type, a Boeing 767.
The Russian television stations stood by the report, saying their source was the Russian Union of Engineers, an obscure Moscow-based organization that had previously issued a report claiming that the Malaysian plane had been downed by Ukrainians.
Peter Leonard reported from Donetsk.