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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suspect Fragments Found in Sibir Probe

KIEV -- Ukraine's defense minister on Tuesday denied that its missile had shot down a Sibir airliner over the Black Sea last week, but a top Russian investigator said experts have found fragments resembling the missile's payload in bodies of passengers and in pieces of the plane.

The comments from presidential aide and former Russian air force commander Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, a member of a state commission investigating the disaster, showed that Moscow has edged even closer to concluding that the Ukrainian military was responsible.

Sixty-six passengers and 12 crew members traveling from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk were killed in Thursday's crash. U.S. intelligence officials believe the Tu-154 was hit by a Ukrainian S-200 missile during exercises on the Crimean Peninsula, which juts into the Black Sea.

"Judging by my knowledge and personal experience, the metal balls of 7 to 8 mm in diameter found in the bodies of those killed and in the fragments of the plane's sheeting very much resemble the combat payload of the S-200 missile," Shaposhnikov said in the Black Sea town of Sochi. "There is much material allowing us to assume that the 'missile version' will in time become the main one in investigating the reasons for the crash."

The S-200, also known as SA-5, a large surface-to-air missile built to shoot down heavy bombers flying at high altitudes, was fired during the exercise just minutes before the plane went down.

Russian investigators initially focused on the possibility of a terrorist attack, and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov called on the Pentagon to provide proof of its allegation. But he then shifted tack, declaring that President Vladimir Putin considered the proof offered by the Ukrainian side inadequate.

"We don't cast doubt on the objectivity of documents submitted, but experts were not satisfied by their volume and quality," Putin said Tuesday, refraining from speculation on the disaster's causes. "Nobody should have any doubts that we shall do everything to clarify the real causes of the tragedy. ... And these documents shall be presented to the public," he said, speaking in the town of Orenburg.

Ukrainian defense officials organized a slideshow for journalists Monday in Kiev to demonstrate the impossibility of a Ukrainian missile hit. Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk made similar arguments Tuesday before the Ukrainian parliament, saying an S-200 was fired 10 minutes before the plane would have crossed its trajectory.

"In other words, the plane could not be caught by an illuminating ray, nor could a missile have been aimed at it," Kuzmuk said. He said the S-200 fell into the sea two minutes before the plane disappeared from the radar and that the distance between the plane and the launch site was about 270 kilometers -- beyond the missile's range.

Kuzmuk also said the armed forces had observed all security measures during the exercises, closing all sea and air corridors in the training zone.

Defense Ministry spokesman Konstantyn Khivrenko said Kuzmuk had ordered the Ukrainian navy to start searching the Black Sea for remains of the S-200 fired.

Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma urged experts to find the truth. "We are interested more than ever in finding the truth, whatever it may be," Kuchma said, according to the local Kiev TV business news.

Itar-Tass and Interfax echoed Shaposhnikov's line, and Itar-Tass, which often toes the government line, quoted unnamed missile designers as saying the plane could well have been within range of the missile.

Separately, it printed an editorial saying it was essential to establish the cause of the crash -- and hinting broadly that it was time for Kiev to come clean.

"Any understatements, any attempts at deviating from the efforts to attain this objective, will eventually give rise to nothing but harm and mutual suspicions," Itar-Tass said. "It is gladdening that Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has declared a similar stance."