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Ukraine's rebels are still shooting down high-flying planes

DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

The eastern Ukraine rebels who are widely thought to have shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine last week, killing 298, are still shooting down high-flying aircraft. On Wednesday, they fired at and downed two Ukrainian military jets flying over their area of control.

Crucially, the planes were flying at 17,000 feet, according to the Ukrainian government — meaning that shooting them down would, as with MH17, require a sophisticated and highly complicated surface-to-air missile system. That is just way too high to be shot down by amateur fighters wielding shoulder-fired missiles. Ukraine's rebels have admitted to possessing such military hardware, the Buk (also known as SA-11) surface-to-air system.

The point is that these two most recent jets were shot down by people who had the professional military training necessary to operate complex, vehicle-based missile systems. The Ukrainian government has argued that Russia is directly responsible and even that the missiles were fired from inside Russia. US intelligence, on the other hand, is so far suggesting that the missile shot at MH17 was fired by rebels within Ukraine, and that while Russia did not pull the trigger it has been arming and instigating the rebels.

Clearly, flying over eastern Ukraine is still very much unsafe at any altitude. The conventional wisdom at this point, again backed up by US intelligence officials, is that Ukraine's rebels shot down MH17 by accident, thinking it was a military aircraft. This would also seem to back up suspicions that MH17 was downed by rebels who have extensive military training — presumably from Russia — but are not a professional outfit themselves. Still, there's no reason to believe that the rebels have become any more cautious or restrained about shooting down airplanes since the MH17 disaster.