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While pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists have emerged as the leading suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, a fierce propaganda battle aimed at tipping the balance of perception is being waged by officials and supporters of both the Russian and Ukrainian governments.
Ukrainian bloggers who support the government in Kiev took to the Internet on Thursday to post photos and video that they say show the exact missile battery that fired the fatal shot being transported to Russia “for complete destruction.”
The video – and a screen grab – of a BUK surface-to-air missile array appear to show a gap where the fourth missile would normally be positioned.
Separately, the Ukraine@war site published a photo that it says showed the BUK battery being transported into the Ukrainian city of Snizhne, a city of about 50,000 east of Donetsk, by a Russian convoy on July 7.
NBC News cannot confirm the veracity of the photos and the video, which also was posted on YouTube and later linked to from the Ukraine Interior Ministry's website. A U.S. official familiar with the investigation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “we cannot rule out their authenticity.”
Other U.S. officials noted that the Russian military has stepped up its delivery of heavy weapons to the pro-Russian separatists fighting to break away from Ukraine in recent weeks, including missile systems, heavy artillery and tanks.
The Russian RT news service fired back on Friday, quoting an unnamed Russian Defense Ministry official as saying the reports that BUK missile battery had crossed back into Russia were false.
Such border crossings “can’t be performed in secrecy,” it quoted the official as saying, adding that no military equipment had crossed the border into Russia since the plane was shot down.
While many Ukrainian officials have been relatively circumspect about blaming Russia for the shoot-down, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Valentine Nalyvaichenko, had no qualms at a news briefing in Kiev late Thursday.
"Now you know who carried out the crime,” he said, after releasing tapes of purported phone call intercepts between separatist commanders and Russian military officials that he said were recorded shortly after the crash. “We will do everything to ensure that those Russian soldiers who carried out this crime were punished."
According to a translation of the audiotapes by the Kiev Post, the calls blamed the shoot-down on a unit of Cossacks in the separatist movement and included a report on the incident from a separatist leader to a Russian military intelligence official. NBC News has not verified the authenticity of the tapes.
Separatist leaders also apparently attempted to use the shoot-down as a propaganda vehicle, claiming responsibility for shooting down a military transport plane, posting videos that are now being connected to the Malaysian airlines crash, and boasting on social media about shooting down a plane, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Powers said Friday. These messages were later deleted, she said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been leading efforts to deflect blame from Moscow, blaming Ukraine within hours of reports that the airliner was shot down for stirring unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions.
“I would like to point out in this regard, that this tragedy would not have occurred if there was peace in that land, at least, if hostilities had not resumed in the South-East of Ukraine,” Putin said. “And without question, the state over whose territory this took place, bears responsibility for this awful tragedy.”
RT also has published a steady diet of stories pointing suspicion at Ukraine, including a piece on Friday quoting the Russian Defense Ministry as saying that the Ukrainian military had an operational Buk anti-aircraft missile battery in the region “from which it could have fired a missile at the airliner.” It said Kiev had earlier denied having any Buk missile launchers deployed in the region.
The United States, which has a tense relationship with Russia, is increasingly pointing the finger toward pro-Moscow separatists, while holding open the possibility that Russian military personnel “embedded” with the separatists could have fired the missile.
President Barack Obama on Friday said, "Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine."
Obama also said that Russian forces are helping train the separatists.
Other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NBC that they are looking into the possibility that the Russians could have fired the missile rather than the separatists.
Asked if that was a possibility, one senior official replied, "Absolutely. But we're still trying to figure that out."