Los Angeles Times

Still stonewalle­d in Ukraine

In­ves­ti­ga­tion is hin­dered a year af­ter the down­ing of Malaysian jet­liner

- By Carol J. Wil­liams carol.wil­liams@latimes.com Twit­ter: @ cjwilliams­lat Military · Crime · Warfare and Conflicts · European Politics · Incidents · Politics · Ukraine · Malaysia · Malaysia Airlines · Russia · Russian Empire · Boeing · Government of Russia · United States of America · United Nations · UN Security Council · Deputy · Australia · Netherlands · Kiev · Dutch Safety Board · Amsterdam · Kuala Lumpur · Tony Abbott · Canberra · Donetsk · Donetsk Oblast · Government of Ukraine · Indian Ocean · Liow Tiong Lai

A year af­ter 298 peo­ple aboard Malaysia Air­lines Flight 17 per­ished in an ex­plo­sion over eastern Ukraine, the con­flict be­hind the tragedy con­tin­ues to thwart in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tors try­ing to de­ter­mine who was re­spon­si­ble.

A team of Dutch po­lice and mil­i­tary in­ves­ti­ga­tors were de­ployed last month to Ukraine’s Donetsk re­gion to ex­am­ine cell­phone tow­ers and com­mu­ni­ca­tions data be­lieved to show that Rus­sia- backed mil­i­tants claimed to have shot down the plane in the mis­taken belief it was a Ukrainian mil­i­tary trans­port.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors, who were barred by sep­a­ratist gun­men from ac­cess­ing the tele­com venues, had been search­ing for ev­i­dence to back Ukrainian gov­ern­ment claims that they had in­ter­cepted com­mu­ni­ca­tions from a Rus­sian mer­ce­nary then in com­mand of lo­cal mil­i­tant forces.

Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov — the Shooter — had boasted on a so­cial media web­site of down­ing a plane f ly­ing at high al­ti­tude min­utes af­ter the Malaysia Boe­ing 777 ex­ploded at 4: 20 p. m. on July 17, 2014, and rained de­bris and corpses over idyl­lic sun­flower fields in rebel- held ter­ri­tory.

A Chicago- area lawyer filed suit against Girkin this week on be­half of the fam­i­lies of 17 vic­tims, al­leg­ing con­spir­acy be­tween the Rus­sian spe­cial forces vet­eran and Krem­lin of­fi­cials ac­cused by the West of in­sti­gat­ing the war be­tween the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment and the sep­a­ratists.

“We are al­leg­ing that Mr. Girkin, as supreme com­man­der of spe­cial units, con­spired to or­der the shoot­down of Malaysia 17,” Floyd Wis­ner, who spe­cial­izes in avi­a­tion lit­i­ga­tion, said Thurs­day in a tele­phone in­ter­view. His law­suit, led by a South African woman whose late hus­band’s ticket was pur­chased for him by a U. S. em­ployer, has stand­ing in U. S. courts, Wis­ner said, un­der the Tor­ture Vic­tims Pro­tec­tion Act.

“We also al­lege that Mr. Girkin acted with ei­ther the ac­tual, ex­pressed, tacit or im­plied au­thor­ity of the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment,” Wis­ner said.

Rus­sian of­fi­cials, who deny any role in the Ukraine war or the Malaysian jet dis­as­ter, have also sig­naled their in­tent to scut­tle a pro­posal by Malaysia to es­tab­lish a United Na­tions crim­i­nal tri­bunal to pros­e­cute those even­tu­ally iden­ti­fied as re­spon­si­ble for shoot­ing down the air­liner. Rus­sia, which holds veto power at the U. N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, con­sid­ers a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion “ill- timed and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive,” Deputy For­eign Min­istry Gen­nady Gatilov said of the pro­posed war crime court.

For­mal de­ter­mi­na­tion of the cause of the dis­as­ter isn’t ex­pected to be dis­closed un­til Oc­to­ber, as the draft ver­sion of a Dutch- led in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­port was only re­cently dis­trib­uted to gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in the coun­tries in­volved in the in­quiry — Ukraine, Rus­sia, Malaysia, Aus­tralia and the Nether­lands — for com­ment and pro­posed re­vi­sion. But CNN re­ported Thurs­day that two sources who have seen the re­port said it at­tributes the plane’s de­struc­tion to a Rus­sian- made BUK sur­face- to- air mis­sile launcher fired from re­bel­held ter­ri­tory.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors also re­port­edly noted that Malaysia Air­lines, which suf­fered the loss of another Boe­ing jet­liner four months ear­lier when MH- 370 went miss­ing over the In­dian Ocean, had failed to heed ad­vice from other in­ter­na­tional air car­ri­ers that pilots steer clear of eastern Ukraine, where sev­eral Ukrainian gov­ern­ment air­craft had been downed af­ter the sep­a­ratist re­bel­lion be­gan in April 2014.

The mil­i­tants in eastern Ukraine con­tend they are aim­ing to join their seized ter­ri­tory to Rus­sia, as Ukraine’s Crimea penin­sula was an­nexed last year. Rus­sian of­fi­cials have dis­tanced them­selves from the an­nex­a­tion claims, deem­ing the sep­a­ratists’ ac­tion a civil war aris­ing from mis­treat­ment of the Rus­sian mi­nor­ity by the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment in Kiev.

The Dutch Safety Board, which is lead­ing the in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tion, is­sued a pre­lim­i­nary re­port nine months ago in which the plane was said to have been in con­tact with air traf­fic con­trol only min­utes be­fore its de­struc­tion. That re­port said the plane did not is­sued a dis­tress sig­nal be­fore it dis­ap­peared from radar af­ter be­ing struck by “high­en­ergy ob­jects from out­side the air­craft,” con­sis­tent with be­ing struck by a mis­sile as it f lew at an al­ti­tude of 33,000 feet.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors from the Nether­lands, Aus­tralia and Malaysia were dis­patched to the crash site near the vil­lage of Hrabove hours af­ter the tragedy but were blocked by armed sep­a­ratists for nearly two weeks, ham­per­ing the foren­sic spe­cial­ists’ abil­ity to doc­u­ment the de­bris field and col­lect the bod­ies of vic­tims.

Most of the re­mains that were rel­a­tively in­tact were re­moved from the crash site by gun­men and stored in makeshift morgues. The rest, left ly­ing in the scorch­ing heat, were badly de­com­posed by the time the in­ter­na­tional in­ves­ti­ga­tors were able to reach them in early Au­gust.

“The in­tegrity of the site has been com­pro­mised,” Malaysian Trans­porta­tion Min­is­ter Liow Tiong Lai com­plained of the mil­i­tants’ dis­rup­tion of the crash site, not­ing that gun­men had gone through vic­tims’ be­long­ings as well as dis­turbed wreck­age and other ev­i­dence.

Af­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tors recorded what was left of the crash scene, they re­moved the re­main­ing bod­ies and air­craft rem­nants. A foren­sic lab­o­ra­tory was set up at a Dutch mil­i­tary base and all but a few vic­tims were iden­ti­fied and their re­mains re­leased to fam­i­lies.

The an­niver­sary Fri­day of the dis­as­ter that struck the f light en route from Am­s­ter­dam to Kuala Lumpur oc­ca­sioned re­flec­tion on its unan­swered ques­tions and pledges from lead­ers of the coun­tries from which most vic­tims hailed to see the per­pe­tra­tors iden­ti­fied and pun­ished.

Mo­ments of si­lence and solemn me­mo­ri­als in the home coun­tries of the largest num­ber of vic­tims stirred anger and sad­ness among the fam­i­lies of the 196 Dutch vic­tims, the 42 from Malaysia, in­clud­ing the 15- per­son crew, and 39 Aus­tralians headed home from Euro­pean va­ca­tions or on their way to an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence in Mel­bourne on the global fight against HIV/ AIDS.

Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott called his na­tion’s law­mak­ers back to Can­berra for the com­mem­o­ra­tion Fri­day in Par­lia­ment, vow­ing to “con­tinue to sup­port fam­i­lies who deal with the pain of loss and who have a deep yearn­ing for jus­tice.”

 ?? Mstyslav Chernov
As­so­ci­ated Press ?? A BOY WAVES a f lag of the self- pro­claimed Donetsk Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic at a me­mo­rial to the vic­tims of the downed Malaysian jet­liner near the vil­lage of Hrabove.
Mstyslav Chernov As­so­ci­ated Press A BOY WAVES a f lag of the self- pro­claimed Donetsk Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic at a me­mo­rial to the vic­tims of the downed Malaysian jet­liner near the vil­lage of Hrabove.

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