Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

9M-MRD, the aircraft shot down, photographed in October 2011
9M-MRD, the aircraft shot down, photographed in October 2011

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH17/MAS17) was a scheduled international passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that was shot down on 17 July 2014, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board. Contact with the Boeing 777-200ER airliner was lost about 50 km (31 mi) from the Ukraine–Russia border and crashed near Torez in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, 40 km (25 mi) from the border. The crash occurred during the Battle in Shakhtarsk Raion, part of the ongoing war in Donbass, in an area controlled by the Donbass People’s Militia.

According to American intelligence sources, the plane was mistakenly shot down by pro-Russian insurgents using a Buk surface-to-air missile (SA-11) fired from the territory which they controlled. Their judgement was based on sensors that traced the path of the missile, analysis of fragment patterns in the wreckage, voice print analysis of conversations in which separatist militants claimed credit for the strike, as well as photos and other data from social media sites. On 13 October 2015, the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) released a final report on their investigation into the incident, concluding that the airliner was downed by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air 9M38-series missile with 9N314M warhead launched from Eastern Ukraine.

The Russian government blamed the Ukrainian government for the incident, saying that Ukraine was responsible for the crash because it happened in Ukrainian airspace. Immediately after the crash, a post appeared on the VKontakte social media profile attributed to Russian Colonel Igor Girkin, leader of the Donbass separatists, claiming responsibility for shooting down an AN-26 near Torez, but later the same day, the separatists denied involvement, and the post was removed. In November 2014, UK based investigative collective Bellingcat said that Russian-backed separatists were in control of a Buk missile launcher on 17 July and transported it from Donetsk to Snizhne. They later claimed to have proven that the Buk identified near the crash site was unlike any Ukrainian-used Buks and that it was elements of the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade that shot down the plane after crossing into Ukraine. In May 2016, Bellingcat said they had identified the launcher used as unit 332 based in Kursk, Russia. Their analyses were largely based on examination of photos in social media and other open-source information.

The Ukrainian government stated that the missile was launched by “Russian professionals and coordinated from Russia”. In October 2014, the German Federal Intelligence Service reportedly concluded that the plane was shot down by pro-Russian separatists using a captured Ukrainian Buk system. Malaysia proposed a United Nations resolution to set up an international tribunal to prosecute those suspected of being behind the downing of the plane. The proposal gained a majority on the UN Security Council (11 countries voting for it, 3 abstaining), but it was vetoed by Russia. The crash is also the deadliest airliner shootdown incident, as well as Malaysia Airlines’ deadliest incident and its second of the year, after the disappearance of Flight 370 four months earlier.

Aircraft

Flight 17 was operated with a Boeing 777-2H6ER, serial number 28411, registration 9M-MRD.[26] The 84th Boeing 777 produced, it first flew on 17 July 1997, exactly 17 years before the incident, and was delivered new to Malaysia Airlines on 29 July 1997. Powered by two Rolls-Royce Trent 892 engines and carrying 280 seats (33 business and 247 economy), the aircraft had recorded more than 76,300 hours in 11,430 cycles before the crash. The aircraft was in an airworthy condition at departure.

The Boeing 777, which entered commercial service on 7 June 1995, has one of the best safety records in commercial aircraft. In June 2014 there were about 1,212 aircraft in service, with 340 more on order.

Aircraft involved, 9M-MRD, photographed at Perth Airport in 2010
Aircraft involved, 9M-MRD, photographed at Perth Airport in 2010

Passengers and crew

The incident is the deadliest airliner shootdown incident to date. All 283 passengers and 15 crew died. The crew were all Malaysian and about two-thirds (68%) of the passengers were Dutch, while many of the other passengers were Australians and Malaysians. By 19 July, the airline had determined the nationalities of all 298 passengers and crew.

Among the passengers were delegates en route to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, including Joep Lange, a former president of the International AIDS Society, which organised the conference. Many initial reports had erroneously indicated that around 100 delegates to the conference were aboard, but this was later revised to just six. Also on board were Dutch Senator Willem Witteveen, Australian author Liam Davison, and Malaysian actress Shuba Jay.

At least twenty family groups were on board the aircraft, and eighty of the passengers were under the age of 18. Two dogs and nine birds were also on board.

The flight had two captains, Wan Amran Wan Hussin from Kuala Kangsar and Eugene Choo Jin Leong (Chinese: 朱仁隆; pinyin: Zhū Rénlóng) from Seremban, and two copilots, Ahmad Hakimi Hanapi and Muhd Firdaus Abdul Rahim.

Nation Number
Australia 27
Belgium 4
Canada 1
Germany 4
Indonesia 12
Malaysia 43
Netherlands 193
New Zealand 1
Philippines 3
United Kingdom 10
Total 298

Background

Some airlines started to avoid eastern Ukrainian airspace in early March 2014 due to the Crimean crisis. In April, the International Civil Aviation Organization warned governments that there was a risk to commercial passenger flights over south-eastern Ukraine. The American Federal Aviation Administration issued restrictions on flights over Crimea, to the south of MH17’s route, and advised airlines flying over some other parts of Ukraine to “exercise extreme caution”. This warning did not include the MH17 crash region. 37 airlines continued overflying eastern Ukraine and about 900 flights crossed the Donetsk region in the seven days before the Boeing 777 was shot down, with Aeroflot, Singapore Airlines, Ukraine International Airlines, Lufthansa and Malaysia Airlines being the most active carriers.

On 14 June 2014, an Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft was shot down on approach to Luhansk International Airport; all 49 people on board died. On 29 June, Russian news agencies reported (with old photos) that insurgents had gained access to a Buk missile system after having taken control of a Ukrainian air defence base (possibly the former location of the 156th Anti-Aircraft Rocket Regiment [156 zrp] of the Ukrainian Air Force). On the same day, the Donetsk People’s Republic claimed possession of such a system in a since-deleted tweet.

On 14 July 2014, a Ukrainian Air Force An-26 transport plane flying at 6,500 m (21,300 ft) was shot down. Militia reportedly claimed via social media that a Buk missile launcher had been used to bring down the aircraft. American officials later said evidence suggested the aircraft had been shot down from Russian territory. On 16 July, a Sukhoi Su-25 close air support aircraft was also shot down. The Ukrainian government said the Russian military had shot down the aircraft with an air-to-air missile fired by a MiG-29 jet in Russia; a spokesman for the Russian defence ministry rejected that report as “absurd”. According to the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, the Ukrainian government also warned the government of Netherlands and other European countries about dangers in flying over the East Ukraine three days prior to the tragedy due to the downing of the AN-26 transport aircraft on 14 July.

On 15 July 2014, following his visit to Kiev, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski warned about the dangers posed by the continued Russian military support for pro-Russian separatists, especially ground-to-air missiles. On 17 July, an Associated Press journalist saw a Buk launcher in Snizhne, a town in Donetsk Oblast, 16 kilometres (10 mi) southeast of the crash site. The reporter also saw seven separatist tanks near the town. Associated Press journalists reported that the Buk M-1 was operated by a man “with unfamiliar fatigues and a distinctive Russian accent” escorted by two civilian vehicles. The battle around Saur Mogila has been suggested as the possible context within which the missile that brought down MH17 was fired, as separatists deployed increasingly sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry in this battle, and had brought down several Ukrainian jets in July. A Ukrainian An-26 was actually scheduled to deliver paratroopers to the battle arena on 17 July and, according to Russian expert Vadim Lukashevich, the separatists “might have been waiting just for them”. According to the final report of the Dutch Safety Board, no An-26 was downed in Eastern Ukraine that day.

The airspace above Donetsk Oblast was closed by Ukraine below 26,000 feet (7,900 m) on 5 June 2014 and, on 14 July, below 32,000 feet (9,800 m). The route in Russian airspace that MH17 would have taken was closed below 32,000 feet (9,800 m) by Russian air control a few hours before the airliner took off. As with other countries Ukraine receives overflight fees for commercial aircraft that fly through their borders. This may have contributed to the continued availability of civilian flight paths through the conflict zone.

Crash

On Thursday, 17 July 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 departed from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol Gate G03 at 12:13 CEST (10:13 UTC) and was due to arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 06:00, Friday 18 July MYT (22:00, 17 July UTC).

According to the original flight plan, MH17 was to fly over Ukraine at flight level 330 (33,000 feet or 10,060 metres) and then change to FL 350 around Dnipropetrovsk. When it reached the area as planned, at 12:53 UTC Dnipropetrovsk Air Control (Dnipro Control) asked MH17 if they could climb to FL 350 as planned, and also to avoid a potential separation conflict with another flight, Singapore Airlines Flight 351, also at FL 330. The crew asked to remain at FL 330 and the air control approved this request, moving the other flight to FL 350. At 13:00 UTC the crew asked for diversion of 20 nautical miles (37 km) to the left (north) due to weather conditions. This request was also approved by Dnipro Control. The crew then asked if they could climb to FL 340, which was rejected as this flight level was not available, so MH17 remained at FL 330. At 13:19 UTC Dnipro Control noticed that the flight was 3.6 nautical miles (6.7 km) north from the centerline of approved track and instructed MH17 to return to the track. At 13:19 UTC Dnipro Control contacted Russian air control in Rostov-on-Don (RND) over telephone and requested clearance for transferring the flight to Russian air control. After obtaining the permission, Dnipro Control attempted to contact MH17 and pass them the details of Rostov-on-Don track at 13:20 UTC. When MH17 did not respond to several calls, Dnipro Control contacted RND again to check if they could see the Boeing on their radar. RND confirmed that the plane had disappeared.

Route of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17
Route of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

The Dutch Safety Board reported a last flight data recording at 13:20 UTC, located west of the urban-type settlement Rozsypne, heading 115° at 494 knots (915 km/h). Three other commercial aircraft were in the same area when the Malaysian plane crashed, including a Singapore Airlines Boeing 777 en route from Copenhagen to Singapore, and Air India Flight 113, a Boeing 787, en route from Delhi to Birmingham. The closest aircraft was 33 kilometres (21 mi) away.

The aircraft crashed outside Hrabove, near Torez in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast, with debris spread over a 50 square kilometres (19 sq mi) area to the southwest of Hrabove. The fireball on impact is believed to have been captured on video. Photographs from the site of the crash show scattered pieces of broken fuselage and engine parts, bodies, and passports. Some of the wreckage fell close to houses. Dozens of bodies fell into crop fields, and some fell into houses.

Aftermath

Around 90 minutes after the incident, Ukraine closed all routes in Eastern Ukrainian airspace, at all altitudes. The incident dramatically heightened fears about airliner shootdowns, leading to a number of airlines announcing they would avoid overflying conflict zones.

It was suggested that credit and debit cards may have been looted from the bodies of the victims, and the Dutch Banking Association said it would take “preventative measures” against any possible fraud. There were also accusations that other possessions had been removed and that evidence at the crash site had been destroyed. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte acknowledged on 6 August that early reports of chaos and criminality around the site may have been exaggerated. One eye-witness observed that valuable items like shoes and bottles of alcohol were untouched in the wreckage, while a video published by News Corp Australia in July 2015 recorded at the scene shortly after the crash shows militants described as “Russian-backed rebels” arriving and ransacking the wreckage.

Shortly after the crash, it was announced that Malaysia Airlines would retire flight number MH17 and change the Amsterdam–Kuala Lumpur route to flight number MH19 beginning on 25 July 2014, with the outbound flight unchanged. In association with the retirement of the Boeing 777 aircraft type from Malaysia Airlines’ fleet, Malaysia Airlines terminated service to Amsterdam on 25 January 2016, instead opting to codeshare with KLM on the KUL-AMS route for service beyond that date. On 18 July 2014, shares in Malaysia Airlines dropped by nearly 16%.

On 23 July 2014, two Ukrainian military jets were hit by missiles at the altitude of 17,000 feet (5,200 m) close to the area of the MH17 crash. According to the Ukrainian Security Council, preliminary information indicated that the missiles came from Russia.

On June 9, 2016, a Russian businessman claimed that the shooting down of the plane put an end to hopes of a Russian nation in Ukraine and prolonged the War in Donbass.

Investigation

Two parallel investigations are being led by the Dutch, one is into the cause of the crash, and a second investigation is a criminal inquiry. The technical report was released on 13 October 2015, while the criminal investigation could extend into 2016. According to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, the country in which an aviation incident occurs is responsible for the investigation, but that country may delegate the investigation to another state, as Ukraine has delegated the leadership of both investigations to the Netherlands. In March 2015 the international investigation team led by the Dutch police issued a call for witnesses, particularly with respect to the movement of a Buk launcher from Sjevernyi near the Russian border through or near Luhansk to Donetsk on a Volvo truck.

– Initial attempts

In the hours following the crash, a meeting was convened of the Trilateral Contact Group. After they had held a video conference with representatives of insurgents affiliated with the Donetsk People’s Republic (who controlled the area where the aircraft crashed), the rebels promised to “provide safe access and security guarantees” to “the national investigation commission” by co-operating with Ukrainian authorities and OSCE monitors. During the first two days of investigation, the militants prevented the OSCE and the workers of Ukrainian Emergencies Ministry from freely working at the crash site. Andre Purgin, a leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, declared later that “we will guarantee the safety of international experts on the scene as soon as Kiev concludes a ceasefire agreement”.

On 18 July 2014, the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder had been recovered by separatists, and three days later were handed over to Malaysian officials in Donetsk. The CVR was damaged but there was no evidence that data had been tampered with.

Dutch and Australian police at the crash site on 3 August 2014
Dutch and Australian police at the crash site on 3 August 2014

Since July 2014 an international investigation team has been conducting an off-site examination to determine why the aircraft crashed. In agreement with the Ukrainian government, the Netherlands are leading this investigation. The investigation team consists of 24 investigators with members from Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia. In addition to the accident investigation, the selection of the flight route was investigated by the Dutch Safety Board (DSB). The National Bureau of Air Accidents Investigation of Ukraine (NBAAI) had requested that the DSB participate in the international investigation. The NBAAI, which led off- and on-site investigation during the first days after the crash, delegated the investigation to the DSB because of the large number of Dutch passengers and the fact that the flight originated in Amsterdam.

On 22 July, a Malaysian team of 133 officials and experts, comprising search and recovery personnel, forensics experts, technical and medical experts arrived in Ukraine. Also Australia sent a 45-member panel headed by former Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, who had earlier supervised the MH 370 probe. The United Kingdom sent six investigators from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and the UK Foreign Office sent extra consular staff to Ukraine. It took until late July before the full international team could start working at the crash site, under the leadership of the Dutch Ministry of Defence.

On 30 July 2014, a Ukrainian representative said that pro-Russian rebels had mined approaches to the crash site and moved heavy artillery.

On 6 August 2014, the experts left the crash site due to concerns about their safety. In mid-September they attempted to regain access to the site but did not have any success. On 13 October a Dutch-Ukrainian team resumed the recovery work to gather personal belongings of the victims. In mid-November, work was undertaken to remove part of the wreckage from the crash site. Earlier efforts by the recovery team to salvage the MH17 wreckage had been frustrated by disagreements with the local rebels. The recovery operation took one week to complete. The debris was transported to the Netherlands where investigators reconstructed parts of the plane.

CT scans of MH17 victims showed “non-aircraft metal” and on 19 December 2014 the Ukrainian security service said that some of the bodies contained metal fragments that indicated the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. Preliminary evidence from the ongoing Dutch investigation concluded that the plane was most likely downed by a Russian unit that was probably manned by a Russian crew, though other possibilities were not ruled out. In August 2015, possible BUK missile parts were found at the crash site by a joint investigation team comprising representatives of the Netherlands, Ukraine, Malaysia, Australia, the UK, US and Russia.

– Cause of crash

Soon after the crash both American and Ukrainian officials said that a surface-to-air missile strike was the most likely cause, and if so, then the missile was fired from a mobile Soviet-designed Buk missile system (NATO reporting name: SA-11 “Gadfly”) as this was the only surface-to-air missile system in the region capable of reaching the altitude of commercial air traffic. According to defence analyst Reed Foster (from Jane’s Information Group), the contour of the aluminium and the blistering of the paint around many of the holes on the aircraft fragments indicate that small, high-velocity fragments entered the aircraft externally, a damage pattern indicative of an SA-11. Ballistics specialist Stephan Fruhling of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre concurred with this, explaining that since it struck the cockpit rather than an engine it was probably a radar guided, rather than heat seeking, missile equipped with a proximity fuzed warhead such as a SA-11.

Shortly after the crash, Igor Girkin, leader of the Donbass separatists, was reported to have posted on social media network VKontakte, taking credit for downing a Ukrainian AN-26. The separatists later recanted and denied involvement after learning that a civilian airliner had been downed, saying they did not have the equipment or training to hit a target at that altitude. Russian media also reported that Alexander Borodai called one of the Moscow media managers 40 minutes after the crash, saying that “likely we shot down a civilian airline”.

A mobile Buk surface-to-air missile launcher, similar to that concluded to have been used in the incident
A mobile Buk surface-to-air missile launcher, similar to that concluded to have been used in the incident

Witnesses in Torez reported sightings on the day of the incident of what appeared to be a Buk missile launcher, and AP journalists reported sightings of a Buk system in separatist controlled Snizhne. The witness reports also backed up photographs and videos which had been posted online, of the Buk launcher in rebel held territory.

On 19 July 2014, Vitaly Nayda, the chief of the Counter Intelligence Department of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), told a news conference, “We have compelling evidence that this terrorist act was committed with the help of the Russian Federation. We know clearly that the crew of this system were Russian citizens.” He cited what he said were recorded conversations in which separatists expressed satisfaction to Russian intelligence agents that they brought down an aeroplane. While one of the involved persons acknowledged that these conversations took place, the separatists denied that they were related to the crash of MH17 and blamed the Ukrainian government for shooting it down. According to Nayda, a Buk launcher used in the shootdown was moved back into Russia the night after the attack. The SBU released another recording, which they said was of pro-Russian-separatist leader Igor Bezler being told of an approaching aircraft two minutes before MH17 was shot down. Bezler said the recording was real, but referred to a different incident. The head of the SBU, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, later concluded that rebels intended to shoot down a Russian airliner in a false flag operation to give Russia a pretext to invade Ukraine, but shot down MH17 by mistake.

Journalists from the Associated Press in Snizhne, Ukraine reported seeing a Buk M-1 enter the town operated by a man “with unfamiliar fatigues and a distinctive Russian accent” escorted by two civilian vehicles, which then moved off in the direction where the shootdown later occurred. According to Ukrainian counterterrorism chief, Vitaly Nayda, after downing the plane under separatist direction, the launcher’s Russian crew quickly moved it back across the border into Russia.

On 22 July 2014, a rebel fighter revealed to an Italian reporter that fellow separatists had told his unit the aircraft had been shot down under the assumption that it was Ukrainian. This information was verified and confirmed on the same day by a German newspaper. Unnamed American intelligence officials stated that sensors that traced the path of the missile, shrapnel patterns in the wreckage, voice print analysis of separatists’ conversations in which they claimed credit for the strike, and photos and other data from social media sites all indicated that Russian-backed separatists had fired the missile.

American officials said that satellite data from infrared sensors detected the explosion of flight MH17. American intelligence agencies said that analysis of the launch plume and trajectory suggested the missile was fired from an area near Torez and Snizhne. Satellites are also likely to have registered the heat signature of the launch of the missile and the activation of the missile launcher tracking radar. The Telegraph, a British paper, said: “The Telegraph’s own inquiries suggest the missile – an SA-11 from a Buk mobile rocket launcher – was possibly fired from a cornfield about 19 kilometres (12 mi) to the south of the epicentre of the crash site.” Other sources suggest the missile was launched from the separatist-controlled town of Chernukhino. A number of other media outlets including The Guardian, The Washington Post and the Sydney Morning Herald have reported that the aeroplane is believed to have been downed by a rebel-fired missile.

An unnamed American intelligence official stated that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 may have been shot down in error by pro-Russian separatists, citing evidence that separatists launched a SA-11 surface-to-air missile that blew up the Malaysian airliner. They said it was possible the rebel was a former member of the Armed Forces of Ukraine who had defected to the pro-Russian separatists. The official dismissed Russian allegations that MH17 took evasive action and said the claim that the Ukrainian government had shot down MH17 was not realistic, as Kiev had no such missile systems in that area, which was rebel-controlled. American intelligence officials also said that Russia was attempting to disguise the flow of weaponry it was delivering to the rebels by sending older weapons that matched Ukraine’s inventory. The British Foreign Office stated that it was “highly likely” that the missile was fired from an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

The Russian Ministry of Defence has maintained that American claims of separatist responsibility were “unfounded”, and said that the American intelligence agencies have not released any of the data on which they based their conclusions. According to the Russian military, in what the New York Magazine called “Russia’s Conspiracy Theory”, MH17 was shot down by the Ukrainians, using either a surface-to-air missile or a fighter plane.

On 21 July 2014, the Russian Ministry of Defence held a press conference and said that while the Boeing 777 was crashing, a Ukrainian Su-25 ground-attack aircraft approached to within 3 to 5 kilometres (1.9 to 3.1 mi) of the Malaysian airliner. The MoD also stated that satellite photographs showed that the Ukrainian army moved a Buk SAM battery to the area close to the territory controlled by the rebels on the morning of 17 July, hours before the crash. They said the installation was then moved away again by 18 July. Promoted by Russian media, the idea that a Su-25 could have downed Boeing with an air-to-air missile was dismissed by chief designer of the aircraft Vladimir Babak. In 2015 Bellingcat purchased satellite photos from the same area and time as mentioned by MoD and demonstrated that MoD used older photos (May and June 2014) in their presentation that were edited to make a Ukrainian “Buk” launcher appear like it was removed after the attack. In the report published by the Dutch Safety Board, an air-to-air missile strike was ruled out.

In an interview with Reuters on 23 July 2014, Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of the pro-Russian Vostok Battalion, acknowledged that the separatists had an anti-aircraft missile of the type the Americans had said was used to shoot down the aircraft, and said that it could have been sent back to Russia to remove proof of its presence; he later retracted his comments, saying that he had been misquoted and stating that rebels never had a Buk. In November 2014 he repeated that the separatists had a Buk launcher at the time, but stated that the vehicle, under control of fighters from Luhansk, had still been on its way to Donetsk when MH17 crashed. It was then retreated to avoid being blamed.

On 28 July 2014, Ukrainian security official Andriy Lysenko announced, at a press conference, that black box recorder analysis had revealed that the aircraft had been brought down by shrapnel that caused “massive explosive decompression.” Dutch officials were reported to be “stunned” by what they saw as a “premature announcement” and said that they had not provided this information.

On 8 September 2014, the BBC released new material by John Sweeney who cited three civilian witnesses from Donbass who saw the Buk launcher in the rebel-controlled territory on the day when MH17 crashed. Two witnesses said the crew of the launcher and a military vehicle escorting it did not have local accents and spoke with Muscovite accents. On the same day Ignat Ostanin, a Russian journalist, published an analysis of photos and films of Buk units moving in Russia and Ukraine in the days before and after the MH17 crash. According to Ostanin, the markings on the specific launcher suspected of being used to shoot MH17, together with the number plates of the large goods vehicle that carried the launcher, suggested that it belonged to the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade of the Air Defence Forces of the Russian Ground Forces.

On 8 October 2014 the president of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) gave a presentation about MH17 to a German parliamentary committee overseeing intelligence activities. According to Der Spiegel, the report contained a detailed analysis which concluded that pro-Russian separatists had used a captured Ukrainian Buk system to shoot down Flight MH17. The report also noted that “Russian claims the missile had been fired by Ukrainian soldiers and that a Ukrainian fighter jet had been flying close to the passenger jet were false” and that Ukraine had published manipulated photographs. The Attorney General of Germany opened an investigation against unknown persons due to a suspected war crime.

On 22 December 2014 the Dutch news service RTL Nieuws published a statement of an unnamed local resident who witnessed the shooting down of MH17, indicating that the plane was shot down by a missile from rebel territory. He took photographs of what appeared to be the vapour trail of a ground-launched missile which he passed to the SBU. On 24 December Russia’s state-operated domestic news agency RIA Novosti quoted the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, saying he saw MH17 shot out of the sky by two Ukrainian jets.

In January 2015 a report produced by the German investigative team CORRECT!V concluded a Buk surface-to-air missile launcher operated by the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Rocket Brigade shot down MH17. Large amounts of other circumstantial evidence were presented separately by various parties that supports this version, identifying specific launcher vehicle, operator name, truck transporting it and its alleged route through Russia and Ukraine.

In March 2015 Reuters published first-hand statements from a number of named witnesses from Chervonyi Zhovten (Ukrainian: Червоний Жовтень), a village close to Torez and Snizhne, who saw the Buk rocket passing over the village when it was fired from a field around 1.5 km away. It also published a statement from a separatist fighter (only the first name was given by Reuters) who confirmed that the launcher was placed in that area on the day of the Boeing crash to prevent Ukrainian airstrikes.

Later in March 2015, RTL Nederland reporter Jeroen Akkermans published the results of an independent analysis of the metal fragments his team found at the crash site in the remains of the airplane’s hull. Forensic investigation suggested that these fragments, some of them having cast-on serial numbers with Cyryllic letters, may be parts of the Buk missile that hit the airplane. DSB has accepted the fragments as evidence but stated “it is important that it be irrefutably demonstrated that there is a relationship between any material and the aeroplane that crashed”.

In May 2015 Novaya Gazeta published a report by “a group of Russian military engineers” that came to a conclusion that the airplane was shot down by a “Buk-M1” launcher with 9M38M1 missile. Authors also analysed the visible impact traces on the surface of the airplane and suggested that the missile couldn’t have been fired from Snizhne, but it was instead fired from Zaroshchenske (Ukrainian: Зарощенське) and claimed that a Ukrainian anti-air unit was located there at that time. In June 2015 the report was the subject of a press conference and was attributed to Mikhail Malisevskiy, chief engineer at Moscow-headquartered Almaz-Antey, the BUK missile manufacturer. The Security Service of Ukraine said that there were inaccuracies in this version, and called the part of the report a fake. Russian military expert Vadim Lukashevich argued on TV Rain that the spatial orientation of the rocket at the moment of explosion does not exclude the possibility that it was launched from Snizhne, as the authors of the report claimed. Lukashevich also noted that the report admitted a “Buk” missile as the cause of the crash, debunking all the previous versions of the crash (Su-25 etc.) populated in Russian media. Also Ukrainska Pravda questioned claims about Ukrainian anti-air unit and stated that Zaroshchenskoe was under control of pro-Russian forces on the day of shootdown. Novaya Gazeta published a long analysis by Mark Solonin, also denying the Almaz-Antey version, and interviewed inhabitants of Zaroshchenskoe who denied the claims about Ukrainian forces and any “Buk” launchers being present in the village at that time.

Bild said that the satellite image from Russia was fake. According to an analysis by Bellingcat, Russia’s satellite images are from June and show signs of editing.

In May 2016, Stratfor in cooperation with DigitalGlobe and AllSource Analysis, released satellite imagery taken 5 hours before the crash which showed a Russian Buk system travelling on a flatbed truck east through the town of Makiivka, 40 km away from Snizhne. Stratfor’s concluded that a Buk system had moved from the Russian border toward Donetsk on 15 July 2014, and then moved back to the east on the afternoon of 17 July 2014, just hours before Flight MH17 was shot down.

In July 2015, News Corp Australia published the transcript of a 17-minute video recorded at the scene shortly after the crash. The transcript and published segments of the video indicated that Russian-backed rebels arrived at the crash site in the expectation of finding the wreckage of a military aircraft and of locating crew that had parachuted from the aircraft.

In June 2016, Dutch prosecutors displayed the exhaust of a Buk missile as part of the criminal case. The intentionality and the reasons for the attack had yet to be established.

– Recovery of bodies

A Ukraine Foreign Ministry representative said that the bodies found at the crash site would be taken to Kharkiv for identification, 270 kilometres (170 mi) to the north. By the day after the crash, 181 of the 298 bodies had been found. Bodies were observed being moved, placed in body bags, and loaded on to lorries.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte complained about the lack of respect shown to the personal belongings of the dead which were reportedly looted. He initially announced his disgust about the handling of the bodies that were reportedly being “dragged around” and “thrown”, but later stated they had been handled with more care than originally estimated. On 20 July, Ukrainian emergency workers, observed by armed separatists, began loading the remains of the passengers of MH17 into refrigerated railway wagons for transport and identification.

On 21 July, pro-Russian rebels allowed Dutch investigators to examine the bodies. By this time, according to Ukrainian officials 272 bodies had been recovered. Remains left Torez on a train on the evening of 21 July, en route to Kharkiv to be flown to the Netherlands for identification. On the same day, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that the Malaysian government had reached a tentative agreement to retrieve the remains of the Malaysians who died in the crash, following any necessary forensic work.

Convoy of 40 hearses heading to Hilversum, while other traffic stopped
Convoy of 40 hearses heading to Hilversum, while other traffic stopped

It was reported on 21 July that with 282 bodies and 87 body fragments found, there were still 16 bodies missing. An agreement had been reached that the Netherlands would co-ordinate the identification effort. A train carrying the bodies arrived at the Malyshev Factory, Kharkiv on 22 July. Dutch authorities stated that they found 200 bodies on the train when it arrived at Kharkhiv, leaving almost 100 unaccounted for.

The first remains were flown to Eindhoven in the Netherlands on 23 July, moved there with Dutch air force C-130 and Australian C-17 transport aircraft, which landed at Eindhoven Airport just before 16:00 local time. The day after, another 74 bodies arrived.

The investigation is being conducted at the Netherlands Army medical regiment training facility in Hilversum by an international team. The UK Metropolitan Police sent specialist officers to assist with the recovery, identification and repatriation of those who died.

On 1 August it was announced that a search and recovery mission, including about 80 forensic police specialists from the Netherlands, Malaysia and Australia, and led by Colonel Cornelis Kuijs of the Royal Marechaussee, would use drones, sniffer dogs, divers and satellite mapping to search for missing body parts at the crash site. Australian officials had believed that as many as 80 bodies were still at the site, but after some days of searching the international team had “found remains of only a few victims” and concluded that “the recovery effort undertaken by local authorities immediately after the crash was more thorough than initially thought.”

On 6 August the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that the recovery operation would be temporarily halted due to an upsurge in fighting around the crash site threatening the safety of crash investigators and recovery specialists, and that all international investigators and humanitarian forces (approximately 500 Australians and 80 Dutch/Malaysians) would leave the country leaving behind a small communications and liaison team. Three areas of the crash site remained unsearched.

On 22 August the bodies of 20 Malaysians (of 43 killed in the incident) arrived in Malaysia. The government announced a National Mourning Day, with a ceremony broadcast live on radio and television.

On 9 October a spokesman for the Dutch national prosecutor’s office stated that one victim had been found with an oxygen mask around his neck; a forensic investigation of the mask for fingerprints, saliva and DNA did not produce any results and it is therefore not known how or when that mask got around the neck of the victim.

By 5 December, the Dutch-led forensic team had identified the bodies of 292 out of 298 victims of the crash.

In February and April 2015 new remains were found on the site. By this time only 2 victims, both Dutch citizens, out of 298 were unidentified.

– Dutch Safety Board preliminary report

On 9 September 2014, the preliminary report was released by the Dutch Safety Board (DSB).

This preliminary report concluded that there was no evidence of any technical or operational failure in the aircraft or from the crew prior to the ending of the CVR and FDR recording at 13.20:03 hrs (UTC). The report also said that “damage observed on the forward fuselage and cockpit section of the aircraft appears to indicate that there were impacts from a large number of high-energy objects from outside the aircraft”. According to the investigators, this damage probably led to a loss of structural integrity that caused an in-flight break-up first of the forward parts of the aircraft and then of the remainder with an expansive geographic spread of the aircraft’s pieces.

Tjibbe Joustra, Chairman of the Dutch Safety Board, explained on the release of the preliminary report that the investigation thus far pointed “towards an external cause of the MH17 crash”, but determining the exact cause of the crash required further investigation and investigators would be able to use “additional evidence” to produce the final report. The Board also announced that they aimed to publish the final report within one year of the date of the crash.

– Dutch Safety Board final report

The Dutch Safety Board issued its final report into the crash on 13 October 2015. There were 61 flight operators from 32 countries who flew over eastern Ukraine at the time, all who thought it was safe to fly there at cruising altitude. In the DSB’s opinion, there was sufficient reason to fully close the airspace over eastern Ukraine as a precaution. The DSB recommended that states involved in armed conflicts should exercise more caution when evaluating their airspace, and operators should be more transparent into their methods of selecting flight routes.

The Safety Board concluded that the crash was caused by a Buk surface-to-air 9M38-series missile with 9N314M warhead. The missile hit the left side of the cockpit and fired fragments, killing all the flight crew. The cockpit was then torn off by the impact, which meant it was likely that most passengers were unconscious by this time due to lack of oxygen. Based on evidence they were able to exclude meteor strikes, the plane having technical defects, a bomb, and an air-to-air attack as causes of the crash. The DSB calculated the trajectory of the missile and found it was fired within a 320-square-kilometre (120 sq mi) area southeast of Torez. Narrowing down a specific launch site was outside the DSB’s mandate. According to Al Jazeera, the area identified by the DSB was controlled by separatists at the time of the downing.

– Criminal investigation

The criminal investigation into the downing of MH17 is being led by the Public Prosecution Service of the Dutch Ministry of Justice. The investigation is the largest in Dutch history, involving dozens of prosecutors and 200 investigators with different specialties. Detectives are looking at forensic samples from bodies and luggage, interviews with witnesses, satellite data, intercepted communications, and information on the Web.

Participating in the investigation along with the Netherlands, are the four other members of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), Belgium, Ukraine, Australia, and Malaysia. Malaysia was the last to join the JIT, being accepted as a full member in late November 2014.

In December 2014, in a letter to the Security Council, the Netherlands UN representative wrote that “The Dutch government is deliberately refraining from any speculation or accusations regarding legal responsibility for the downing of MH17. During an appearance at the American Enterprise Institute, the Assistant Secretary of DoS’s European and Eurasian Affairs said in December, “We have given all of our information, including our classified information to the Dutch who are the investigators and to ICAO… So any efforts to say that we have not are also untrue.”

On 30 March 2015, the JIT released a Russian-language video calling for witnesses in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions who might have seen a Buk missile system. The video included some previously undisclosed recordings allegedly of tapped phone conversations between rebel fighters about the Buk. In one recording, of a conversation a few hours after the shoot down, a fighter says that a member of the Buk’s accompanying crew had been left behind at a checkpoint. In another alleged recording, dated the day after the shootdown, a rebel says the Buk system and its crew had been brought from Russia by “the Librarian.” The video presents a “scenario” whereby a BUK missile was transported on a Volvo low loader truck from Severnyi, a town located within a kilometer of the Russian border, to Donetsk during the night of 16/17 July. In the week following the public appeal, the JIT received more than 300 responses resulting in dozens of “serious witnesses”. In 2016 the presence of the transloader of matching color with a Buk missile was confirmed on a satellite photo of the area taken just a few hours before downing of the plane, which was described as “correlating with other evidence” by Stratfor who found the photo in DigitalGlobe archive.

On 9 April 2015 Dutch authorities made available 569 documents concerning the shoot-down. Personal information and official interviews had been redacted. 147 more documents were not made public.

The Netherlands discussed with the other JIT members a proposal to create an international tribunal to prosecute those suspected of downing the Malaysian airliner. This court would take up the case after the closing of the current criminal investigation. The Dutch hoped that an international tribunal would induce Russian cooperation, which is considered critical. In late June 2015, the Russian government rejected a request by the five countries on the investigative committee to form a UN tribunal which would try those responsible for the shooting down of the aircraft, calling it “not timely and counterproductive.” On 8 July 2015, Malaysia, a member of the UN Security Council, formalized this proposal by distributing a draft resolution to establish a UN tribunal to prosecute the parties responsible for the shoot-down. The resolution is a joint proposal put forward by Malaysia, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium and Ukraine. Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin responded, “I don’t see any future for this resolution. Unfortunately, it seems that this is an attempt to organize a grandiose, political show, which only damages efforts to find the guilty parties.” Russia later circulated a rival resolution which didn’t call for a tribunal, but instead criticised the international investigation and demanded those responsible for the crash be brought to justice. In a vote, Malaysia’s resolution gained majority support of the UNSC, but was vetoed by Russia.

In May 2016 families of 33 victims of the crash sued Russia and president Vladimir Putin in the European Court of Human Rights, arguing Russian actions violated the passengers’ right to life. The following month, the Dutch-led criminal inquiry into the incident announced that it hoped to present its final results “within months” which would be presented as a criminal file to a court or tribunal.

Reactions

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the crash the result of an act of terrorism, and also called for an international investigation into the crash.

Malaysian Deputy Foreign Minister Hamzah Zainuddin said that the foreign ministry would be working with the Russian and Ukrainian governments with regard to the incident. Prime Minister Najib Razak later said that Malaysia was unable to verify the cause of the crash and demanded that the perpetrators be punished. The Malaysian government flew the national flag at half-mast from 18 July until 21 July.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and King Willem-Alexander voiced their shock at the crash, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans joined the Dutch investigation team sent to Ukraine. Dutch government buildings flew the flag at half-mast on 18 July. Music was cancelled and festivities were toned down on the last day of the Nijmegen Marches. On 21 July the Netherlands opened a war crimes investigation on the downing of the aircraft, a Netherlands public prosecutor went to Ukraine as part of this investigation. Rutte threatened tough action against Russia if it did not help in the investigation.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in an address to parliament that the aircraft was downed by a missile which seemed to have been launched by Russian-backed rebels. Julie Bishop, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, said in an interview on an Australian television programme that it was “extraordinary” that her Russian counterparts had refused to speak to her over the shootdown after the Russian ambassador was summoned to meet her. The Russian government was critical of Abbott’s response; Abbott was one of the first world leaders to publicly connect the shootdown to Russia. Abbott later criticised the recovery efforts as “shambolic”, and “more like a garden clean-up than a forensic investigation”; Bishop publicly warned separatist forces against treating the victims’ bodies as hostages. Abbott also said in an interview on 13 October 2014, in anticipation of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s attendance at the 2014 G20 summit, scheduled for mid-November 2014 in Brisbane, Australia: “Australians were murdered. They were murdered by Russian-backed rebels using Russian-supplied equipment. We are very unhappy about this.”

Russian President Putin said that Ukraine bore responsibility for the incident which happened in its territory, which he said would not have happened if hostilities had not resumed in the south-east of Ukraine. He also said that it was important to refrain from making any hasty conclusions and politicised statements before the end of the investigation. He said that Russia would help an international inquiry led by the ICAO. By end of July a Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev said in an interview for German Die Welt that there’s no doubts that it was the separatists who shot down the plane by mistake and “Putin now understood that he has passed the weapon to wrong people”.

United States President Barack Obama said the United States would help determine the cause. In a press statement, White House spokesman Josh Earnest called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine to allow for a full investigation. Vice-President Joe Biden said the plane appeared to have been deliberately shot down, and offered American assistance for the investigation into the crash. American Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power called on Russia to end the war. The British government requested an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council and called an emergency Cobra meeting after the incident. Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin E. Dempsey has said that instead of backing away from supporting the rebels in the wake of the airline tragedy, Putin had “taken a decision to escalate.”

Commenting on the response by the German government to questions about what military intelligence the government had on the downing of MH17, Alexander Neu, New Left Party MP and chairman of the Defence Committee, said, “The federal government has no knowledge of whether MH17 was shot in the Ukraine, and especially of which belligerent shot it down. Thus, there is blame based on wild speculation based on wishful thinking, and above all on political interests hostile to Russia.”

A makeshift memorial at the Schiphol Airport for the victims of flight MH17
A makeshift memorial at the Schiphol Airport for the victims of flight MH17

Commander of the Donbass People’s Militia Igor Girkin was quoted as stating that “a significant number of the bodies weren’t fresh”. He followed up by saying “Ukrainian authorities are capable of any baseness”; and also said that blood serum and medications were found in the plane’s remnants in large quantities.

The European Union’s representatives José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy released a joint statement calling for immediate and thorough investigation. The EU officials also said that Ukraine has first claim on the plane’s black boxes.

The International Civil Aviation Organization declared that it was sending its team of experts to assist the National Bureau of Air Accidents Investigation of Ukraine (NBAAI), under Article 26 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation. The United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2166 on 21 July, regarding an official crime investigation into the incident. On 24 July 2014 the ICAO issued a State Letter reminding signatory states of their responsibilities with respect to the safety and security of civil aircraft operating in airspace affected by conflict.

After the crash, memorial services were held in Australia and in the Netherlands, which declared 23 July, the day when the first victims arrived in the country, a national day of mourning, the first since 1962. The opening ceremony of the AIDS 2014 conference, of which several delegates were on board flight MH17, began with a tribute to the victims of the crash. In Malaysia, makeshift memorials were created in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.

Russian media coverage

Media coverage of the crash in Russia has differed from coverage in most other countries.

On the evening following the crash, the lifenews.ru portal released a statement saying that a “Ukrainian Air Force An-26 transport plane” had been shot down by a missile and crashed. ITAR-TASS and RIA Novosti had also reported that an An-26 had been shot down by the militia (separatists) near Torez at around 16:00 local time.

The Russian government-funded outlet RT initially said that the plane may have been shot down by Ukraine in a failed attempt to assassinate Vladimir Putin, in a plot which was organised by Ukraine’s “Western backers”. Other theories propagated by Russian media include: that the Ukrainians shot down the plane in a botched attempt at mass murder of Russian citizens or by mistake (reported twice, in July and in December); that Ukrainian air traffic controllers purposefully redirected the flight to fly over the war zone; and that the Ukrainian government organised the attack on the plane to bring infamy upon the pro-Russian rebels.

According to the poll conducted by the Levada Center between 18 and 24 July 80% of Russians surveyed believed that the crash of MH17 was caused by the Ukrainian military. Only 3% of respondents to the poll blamed the disaster on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In July 2014, Sara Firth, who had worked as a correspondent with RT for the previous five years, resigned in protest at the channel’s coverage of the crash, which she described as “lies”. RT said Firth had left to take another job.

Also in July 2014, the liberal Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a headline in Dutch that read “Vergeef ons, Nederland” (“Forgive Us, Netherlands”).

On 15 November 2014, Russia’s Channel One reported on a supposedly leaked spy satellite photo which shows the plane being shot from behind by a Ukrainian fighter jet. Many other Russian media reprinted the photo. The authenticity of the photo was questioned by online commentators. The photo had been emailed to the Vice-President of the Russian Union of Engineers by a self-described aviation expert who had found it on a Russian online forum. The aviation expert later apologised, saying that he was unhappy with how the information been used.

In January 2015 the Council of the European Union expressed concern over Russian statements questioning the investigation into the downing of flight MH 17 and emphasised that the investigation “is carried out by a fully independent expert team of international experts in full compliance with ICAO rules and regulations, and calls on all parties to fully cooperate with the investigation.”

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