Mys­tery still un­solved

One year af­ter 298 die in MH17 Ukraine crash, no clar­ity on cause or per­pe­tra­tor

Cape Breton Post - - WEEKEND - BY JIM HEINTZ AND JOAN LOWY

A year since a Malaysia Air­lines Boe­ing 777 was blown out of the sky over war-rav­aged eastern Ukraine — killing 298 peo­ple — there has been lit­tle of­fi­cial word of progress in de­ter­min­ing what brought down Flight MH17.

One of the probes un­der way re­port­edly points to­ward a ground-to-air mis­sile fired from a vil­lage held by Rus­sia-backed sep­a­ratist rebels, but the re­port isn't to be public for months. Another in­ves­ti­ga­tion trudges for­ward with painful slow­ness, and con­tra­dic­tory the­o­ries emerge from Moscow.

A fog of ve­he­ment al­le­ga­tions, macabre claims and self-serv­ing rhetoric shrouds the tragedy.

Within hours of the July 17, 2014 crash, a cru­cial fact ap­peared clear — the wreck­age was strewn over such a wide area that the plane must have bro­ken into bits long be­fore it fell. Most ev­i­dence points to the plane, which de­parted from Am­s­ter­dam en route to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, be­ing taken down by a mis­sile over an area con­trolled by pro-Rus­sia rebels.

But whether the mis­sile was fired from a war­plane or from the ground re­mains un­clear. As is the ques­tion of who fired: the Ukrainian army, the sep­a­ratist rebels or Rus­sian forces al­legedly back­ing them with troops and arms. An in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion may be able to an­swer the first ques­tion, but not un­til at least Oc­to­ber. Another probe ad­dress­ing the sec­ond is likely to take un­til at least next year.

A look at where the in­ves­ti­ga­tions and the­o­ries stand:

CRASH CAUSE

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion led by the Dutch Safety Board aims only to de­ter­mine the crash cause, not to as­cribe blame. That's likely to pro­duce a re­port loaded with es­o­teric tech­ni­cal de­tail. A pre­lim­i­nary re­port from the board in Septem­ber was able to say only that the plane was de­stroyed by "high-energy ob­jects'' that pierced it from out­side.

A draft ver­sion of the fi­nal re­port was cir­cu­lated this month to rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Malaysia, Ukraine, the U.S., Rus­sia, Bri­tain, Aus­tralia and the Nether­lands for their com­ments and sug­gested re­vi­sions. Oleg Storchevoi, a deputy chief of the Rus­sian avi­a­tion agency, said the agency has com­plaints re­gard­ing both the tech­ni­cal data and the ar­gu­ments in the re­port. He did not give de­tails.

But a U.S. of­fi­cial told The As­so­ci­ated Press that the draft says the plane was de­stroyed by a Rus­sian-made Buk sur­face-toair mis­sile fired from the vil­lage of Snizhne, which was un­der rebel con­trol. The of­fi­cial, who wasn't au­tho­rized to com­ment pub­licly, spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity.

The probe is be­ing led by The Nether­lands be­cause 196 of the vic­tims were Dutch, and Ukraine agreed to give Hol­land for­mal re­spon­si­bil­ity for the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

CRIM­I­NAL IN­VES­TI­GA­TION

A probe by the Dutch na­tional pros­e­cu­tor's of­fice aims to es­tab­lish who was re­spon­si­ble. This in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­cludes author­i­ties from Ukraine, Malaysia and other coun­tries whose na­tion­als were among the vic­tims, but Rus­sia is not a par­tic­i­pant.

It is un­clear whom the in­ves­ti­ga­tors are ques­tion­ing, or the ex­tent of the ev­i­dence they've col­lected. The pros­e­cu­tor's of­fice re­leased a video call­ing on wit­nesses to come for­ward and in­di­cated the probe is fo­cus­ing on rebel or Rus­sian in­volve­ment. The video asks for in­for­ma­tion about a Buk-11 mis­sile sys­tem that was spot­ted mov­ing through the rebel ter­ri­tory be­fore and af­ter the crash, then pos­si­bly head­ing for the Rus­sian bor­der. The in­ves­tiga­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion Belling­cat also has de­voted at­ten­tion to this mis­sile-launcher, claim­ing it can be traced to one that was stored in the rebels' main strong­hold of Donetsk.

Rebel of­fi­cials at the time de­nied hav­ing any such mis­sile sys­tems, although Rus­sian news agen­cies had re­ported rebel claims of seiz­ing some from Ukrainian forces a few weeks ear­lier.

Rus­sia is op­pos­ing a pro­posed UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion to es­tab­lish an in­ter­na­tional crim­i­nal tri­bunal for the crash; Moscow has veto power in the se­cu­rity coun­cil.

RUS­SIA'S THE­O­RIES

A few days af­ter the crash, the Rus­sian De­fence Min­istry showed photos it said proved that Ukrainian sur­face-to-air sys­tems were op­er­at­ing in the area be­fore the crash. Rus­sian of­fi­cials also said they had ev­i­dence that a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet had flown "be­tween three three to five kilo­me­tres'' from the Malaysia Air­lines jet.

The lat­ter the­ory was re­vis­ited a few months later when state tele­vi­sion re­leased a satel­lite pho­to­graph that it claimed showed that a Ukrainian fighter jet shot down MH17. The photo pur­port­edly came from a lit­tle­known per­son who iden­ti­fied him­self as an avi­a­tion ex­pert. Blog­gers fol­low­ing the case quickly claimed the photo was a forgery.

In June, the Rus­sian man­u­fac­turer of Buk sys­tems said it had con­cluded the air­liner was in­deed brought down by a Buk, but an older model no longer in ser­vice in Rus­sia. It said such sys­tems were still used by the Ukrainian army, but it was not clear if the Buks re­port­edly seized by rebels a year ear­lier would have in­cluded that model.

De­spite mis­sile-maker's state­ment, Rus­sia's top in­ves­tiga­tive body says it re­gards the war­plane as its top the­ory and claims to be pro­tect­ing a Ukrainian wit­ness who has iden­ti­fied the plane's pi­lot.

In any case, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has said, Ukraine is morally re­spon­si­ble for the crash be­cause it oc­curred in a war that Rus­sia claims was launched by Ukraine.

LOOSE ENDS

One of the en­dur­ing mys­ter­ies of the tragedy is whether the rebels ac­tu­ally pub­licly ad­mit­ted to down­ing the plane. Just min­utes af­ter the crash, a post­ing ap­peared on the so­cial media ac­count of then-rebel com­man­der Igor Girkin, say­ing the rebels had shot down a Ukrainian An-26 trans­port plane and it crashed in the same area as MH17. The rebels had shot down sev­eral Ukrainian planes in the early months of the war, but ap­par­ently with shoul­der­fired mis­siles that could not reach the al­ti­tude at which MH17 was fly­ing. The post­ing was later scrubbed from the ac­count, with the ex­pla­na­tion that the post was not by Girkin him­self but by some­one else with ac­cess to the ac­count.

Girkin also was no­to­ri­ous for claim­ing that many of the peo­ple on MH17 were dead be­fore the plane took off, which he said was based on wit­ness ac­counts that the bod­ies were pu­tre­fy­ing im­me­di­ately af­ter the crash.

A Rus­sia-backed sep­a­ratist APC rides by an Ortho­dox cross with a sign read­ing Save and Guard, with a me­mo­rial to the vic­tims of the Malaysian Air­lines MH17 plane crash, in the back, near the vil­lage of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine. A year since a Malaysia Air­lines Boe­ing 777 was blown out of the sky over war-rav­aged eastern Ukraine, killing 298 peo­ple, there has been lit­tle of­fi­cial word of progress in de­ter­min­ing what brought down Flight MH17.

A boy waves a flag of the self-pro­claimed Donetsk Peo­ple's Re­pub­lic at a me­mo­rial to the vic­tims of the Malaysian Air­lines MH17 plane crash at the crash site near the vil­lage of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, ear­lier this week.

In this Satur­day, July 19, 2014, file photo, pro-Rus­sian fight­ers walk on a road with vic­tims' bod­ies ly­ing in bags by the side at the crash site of a Malaysia Air­lines jet near the vil­lage of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine.

In this Thurs­day, July 17, 2014, file photo, peo­ple walk amongst the de­bris at the crash site of a pas­sen­ger plane near the vil­lage of Grabove, Ukraine.

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