Russia under fire for editing Wikipedia page over MH17 tragedy

The Russian government has reportedly been embarrassed after being caught trying to remove sections of a Wikipedia page relating to the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 tragedy.

A Twitter bot established to monitor edits to the massive online encyclopedia from Russian government IP addresses spotted changes made to part of a page that accused Russia of providing "terrorists" with the missiles that were used to shoot down the Boeing 777 passenger jet with 298 on board.

According to The UK Telegraph, an internet user from the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK) appears to have edited a Russian language version of a Wikipedia page to say "The plane [flight MH17] was shot down by Ukrainian soldiers".

The Wikipedia page, which listed a number of civil aviation accidents, had originally read that MH17 was shot down "by terrorists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic with Buk system missiles, which the terrorists received from the Russian Federation."

Smoke rises up at a crash site of a passenger plane, near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine after debris from MH17 crashed to the ground. Photo: AP/Dmitry Lovetsky.

The edit was uncovered by automated Twitter account @RUGovEdits, which allows for changes made to Wikipedia pages from government computers to be immediately tweeted.

"Wikipedia article List of aircraft accidents in civil aviation has been edited by RTR [another name for VGTRK]," read a tweet posted today from that account (translated into English).

There were no survivors from the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, a Boeing 777. The United Nations said 80 of the 298 aboard were children. It was the deadliest attack on a commercial airliner and scattered bodies were seen over miles of rebel-held territory near the border with Russia.

Kiev and Moscow have traded blame for the tragedy, with Putin saying Ukraine bore responsibility for the crash for pressing on with its offensive against the rebels.

Ukrainian U.N. Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev, centre, stands for a moment of silence for the lives lost on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday during a meeting at United Nations headquarters on Friday. Photo: AP/John Minchillo.

Despite accusations from global leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Russian President Vladimir Putin has strongly denied any responsibility for the attack.

“Certainly, the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy,” he said.

Pro-Kremlin media pushes Putin's case over downed Malaysian plane

Some said Ukrainian jet fighters tailed the doomed Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17; others speculated that Kiev's forces mistook it for Vladimir Putin's Russian presidential jet.

But while Russia's pro-Kremlin media offered varying accounts of how the Boeing 777 may have been brought down, they agreed on who was responsible: the Ukrainian government.

For Moscow, Kiev ands pro-Russian separatist rebels alike, the information war to sway public opinion over who is to blame for Thursday's disaster will be crucial to how the crisis in eastern Ukraine develops.

Hours after the crash that killed 298 people, Putin pointed the finger of blame at his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko, saying it would not have happened if Kiev had not ended a ceasefire with the separatists.

Since then, reporting from Russia's tightly-controlled media, which has favored the rebels throughout the conflict, has largely supported Putin's conclusions, sharply diverging from Western coverage of the tragedy.

Russian media drew parallels with a Russian passenger jet carrying 78 people which was mistakenly shot down by the Ukrainian military in 2001 as it flew over the Black Sea.

An aviation source cited by Kremlin-owned news outlet RT also pushed the idea that Ukrainian forces may have fired a rocket at the Malaysian Boeing, mistaking it for Putin's jet returning from a summit in Brazil.

"The contours of the airplanes are in general similar, the linear dimensions are also very similar and regarding the coloring, from a sufficiently long distance, they are practically identical," the source said.

As is often the case with pro-Kremlin news outlets, the narrative could not be more different from the one reported by Western media, which RT television criticized for "unleashing a post-crash factless blame game against Russia".

Any indication that the rebels shot down the plane with weapons seized either from Russian or Ukrainian stockpiles could raise pressure for stronger action against Russia.

A woman reacts to news regarding a Malaysia Airlines plane that crashed in eastern Ukraine at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia. Photo: AP/Joshua Paul.

The day before the crash, the United States had slapped its toughest sanctions yet on Russia for its role in the separatist conflict that has brought Moscow's ties with the West to their lowest since the Cold War.

Russia's LifeNews online outlet carried a slightly different account, saying witnesses had seen a Ukrainian fighter jet behind the Malaysian airliner, which was flying at an altitude of 10 km (32,800 feet) - so high it would be barely visible from the ground.

Russian news reports supported their arguments with the alleged Twitter feed of a Spaniard believed to work as an aviation dispatcher at Kiev's Borisypil airport.

"Two Ukrainian jet fighters were noticed next to the airplane before it disappeared from the radar, all of three minutes beforehand," the alleged dispatcher was quoted as saying by Interfax and pro-Russian Twitter accounts.

On Thursday the cited account @Spainbuca had been deleted.

Information counterattack

Kiev is staging an information counterattack. Officials accused the rebels of using a Soviet-era SA-11 missile system acquired from Russia - offering evidence that they may have believed they were firing on a Ukrainian military aircraft. The government released recordings it said were of Russian intelligence officers discussing the shooting down of an aircraft by rebels they were supporting.

"Hell," says one of those being recorded. "It's almost 100 percent certain that it's a civilian plane. Bits were falling in the streets ... Bits of seat, bodies."

The separatists in Donetsk, near where the plane went down, boasted to Russian newswire ITAR-TASS last month of having gained an SA-11 Buk, which is believed to have shot down the Boeing. Hours after the crash, however, the premier of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Borodai, denied the claim, telling RIA news agency the fighters had no Buk systems that could have brought down the plane.

"We didn't have Buks and don't have them now. Some other kinds of air defence systems were seized," he said.

This image taken from video shows a guidebook found in the wreckage of passenger plane flight MH17 after it was shot down Thursday as it flew over Ukraine, near the village of Hrabove, in eastern Ukraine. Photo: AP/Channel 1.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview on state television that Kiev was spinning the facts and trying to deceive the international community over what was happening in eastern Ukraine.

"A stream of falsehoods is flowing out of Kiev regarding what is happening," said Lavrov, "They are accusing everyone and everything except for themselves."

A Western diplomatic source in Moscow said it would be "very difficult" to convince the international opinion that the separatists were not behind the crash.

Russia has already found some unofficial support from China, where the state news agency said in a commentary that officials from the United States, Australia and other Western countries had jumped to conclusions in pointing their fingers at the rebels in eastern Ukraine or blaming Russia.