ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
At the White House today President Obama said the U.S. is confident that the crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was caused by a surface-to-air missile. He also said that the missile was fired from a part of Ukraine controlled by Russian backed separatists.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nearly 300 innocent lives were taken. Men, women, children, infants who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine. Their deaths are a outrage of unspeakable proportions.
SIEGEL: The president said the focus now is on recovering the bodies and investigating what happened. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston joins us now with the latest. And Dina, what is the evidence that has convinced the U.S. that this missile was fired from separatists-held territory in eastern Ukraine?
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, we understand that the U.S. has a huge number of surveillance assets in the region. And that's providing a lot of the information. Among other things, U.S. officials are analyzing intercepted cell phone calls. The Ukrainian government released them overnight. And they say, the first call took place about half an hour after the crash. It's in Russian, but let's just take a short listen.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 1: (Russian spoken).
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's thought to be the voice of a rebel commander. And officials say he's believed to be talking to a Russian military intelligence official. In that bit you just heard the first voice is the rebel commander saying, we've just shot down a plane. And then he gives a location.
SIEGEL: And does the location that he gives match where the flight went down?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes it does. And then the second voice thought to be the Russian intelligence official asks about the pilots of the plane.
SPEAKER 1: (Russian spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 2: (Russian spoken).
TEMPLE-RASTON: And then he asks when was the plane shot down? And that timing corresponds to the crash of Flight 17.
SIEGEL: Dina, how do we know that this tape is real?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, U.S. officials say they're still analyzing this audio and they do things like voice prints which can match voices that they have on file. We understand the while authen...
SIEGEL: the authenticity of.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Thank you, the process is continuing. U.S. officials are pretty confident about who's on the call. We're also told that intelligence officials can pinpoint exactly where the missile itself was fired from and that's why President Obama said he was so confident that the surface-to- air missile came from this area controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
SIEGEL: So is the U.S. actually saying that the pro-Russian separatists were behind this?
TEMPLE-RASTON: They're stopping just short of that. Instead they seem to be slowly building a case. The American ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, gave a speech in the Security Council today. And she implicated the separatists but she brought Russia into the equation too. She said that the only missiles capable of shooting down a plane at 30,000 feet come from a very sophisticated anti-aircraft system. And that's an advance system that pro-Russian separatists would need help to actually operate. And then Ambassador Power suggested that they must've had technical assistance from Russia. And she said the U.S. has been watching Russia provide assistance to the rebels for weeks. And here she gave some details.
SAMANTHA POWER: In the last few weeks Russia has increased the number of tanks, armored vehicles, and rocket launchers in southwest Russia. More advanced air defense systems have also arrived. Moscow has recently transferred Soviet air tanks and artillery to the separatists and several military vehicles crossed the border.
TEMPLE-RASTON: She also said that Russia has allowed the separatists to open a recruiting office in Moscow and the separatists have advertised for volunteers who have experience in tanks and antiaircraft defenses. Those are her words. This is all circumstantial evidence so far but clearly the U.S. is trying to lay out its case.
SIEGEL: Well, in response to that case, what are Russia and the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine saying?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, they're blaming it on the Ukraine government - pro-Kremlin media suggesting that Ukraine fighters were seen shadowing the plane just before it went down. Pro-Russian separatists have said outright that the Ukraine forces did it. They claim they don't have these sophisticated antiaircraft systems everyone is talking about. The problem with that is that in recent weeks rebels have been on social media and they have been crowing about capturing this Russian-built Buk missile system. And some of these posts just mysteriously have been taken down from the web in the last 24 hours. Ambassador Power tried to deflect any suspicion from the Ukraine forces. She said the U.S. hasn't seen any Ukraine anti-aircraft missiles in that area.
SIEGEL: Thank you Dina.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.