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Did a missile down the Malaysian jet over Ukraine?

If a Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine on Thursday as alleged by Kiev, military analysts say a medium-range missile was the most likely culprit.

Experts say a surface-to-air missile with a mid-range would be well able to strike a plane that was reportedly flying at an altitude of more than 30,000 feet (10 kilometers).

Both Russian and Ukrainian forces have variants of the Buk, a surface-to-air missile system — including SA-11 and SA-17 missiles — that can hit targets at an altitude of up to 25 kilometers.

Under NATO’s terminology, the Buk missile is referred to as the “Gadfly.”

Shoulder-launched weapons have been blamed for the downing of several Ukrainian aircraft in recent days, but those attacks occurred at much lower altitudes, analysts said.

“A short-range, shoulder-launched weapon has been responsible for several aircraft lost in the last few days. . . but it wouldn’t be able to reach an altitude of 30-odd thousand feet,” said Edward Hunt, senior defense analyst at IHS Jane’s consultancy.

“It would have to be a missile of a certain capability,” Hunt told AFP.

Another scenario for the downed airliner could involve an air-to-air missile launched from a fighter jet, though there has been no indication of a warplane nearby at the same time.

The Buk surface-to-air missiles are in wide use. Before the conflict in Ukraine erupted, Kiev government forces had about six to eight batteries, Hunt said.

Russia has many more in its arsenal, as well as more sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, including the S-300 and the S-400, though it was unclear if those would be in use in or around Ukraine.

The S-400 is the most advanced and is believed to be deployed around Moscow and a few other areas.

It would be logical if the Russian armored battalions deployed near the Ukrainian border had some Buk batteries with them, given that Moscow has said the units are on “exercises,” analysts said.

But the missiles are not simple to operate like shoulder-launched weapons and it would be unlikely for pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine to be operating the Buk batteries.

“They’re normally not seen within insurgent or separatist forces for the very reason they’re quite manpower intensive, training intensive and spare parts intensive,” Hunt said.

The Buk missiles are mobile systems installed on vehicles and are designed to strike aircraft, cruise missiles, helicopters and other targets.

The Buk systems have appeared on Red Square at military parades and were first produced in the 1970s during the Soviet era.

The latest versions are manufactured at a factory in Ulyanovsk by Almaz-Antey, a firm that has been targeted by recent US sanctions against Moscow.

The Buk missiles also reportedly have been spotted in Syria. Russia delivered the systems to Damascus in recent years.