MH17: Evidence mounts against Russian-backed separatists

Ukraine interior minister claims Buk missile launcher moved across border to Russia, as accident investigators raise fears about interference at crash site
David Barrett, and Tom Parfitt
Telegraph | 18 Jul 2014

A missile launcher allegedly used to destroy Flight MH17 has been smuggled across the Ukrainian border into Russia in order to cover up its role in the strike, Ukraine’s interior minister has claimed.

Amid mounting evidence mounted that Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine were behind the disaster, the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations said “technical assistance” from Russia could not be ruled out.

And in a pointed reference to Moscow, Samantha Power as she said the perpetrators should not be “sheltered” by any other UN member state.

In a day of claim and counter-claim, Ukraine’s interior minister Arsen Avakov said a Buk mobile launch vehicle had been moved since the destruction of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777-200 on Thursday, and that it was missing at least one rocket, suggesting it had fired at the jet killing all 298 aboard.

The minister claimed the launcher had been tracked by Ukrainian intelligence agents as it passed by the town of Krasnodon in Luhansk region on its way to the Russian border.

A 13-second video showed a tarpaulin-covered vehicle being driven through a semi-rural location with green and white missiles still visible, but it was not possible to confirm the veracity of the claim.

Mr Avakov wrote on Facebook: “To all appearance, this is exactly the Buk rocket complex which fired at the aircraft flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.”

Photographs also emerged purportedly showing a Buk battery being moved in a rebel-held area close to the crash site in eastern Ukraine.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, rubbished suggestions that Moscow was involved in the alleged strike, while the pro-Russian separatists also denied involvement claiming they did not have a weapon capable of such an attack.

However, the separatists themselves announced at the end of last month that they had seized at least one Buk missile launcher from a Ukrainian army base in Donetsk.

Miss Power told the UN Security Council: “We assess Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 … was likely downed by a surface-to-air missile, [likely] an SA-11, operated from a separatist location in eastern Ukraine.”

SA-11 is the designation used by the US Department of Defense for the Buk missile.

“We cannot rule out technical assistance from the Russians,” added the ambassador.

“The perpetrators must be brought to justice they must not be sheltered by any member state of the United Nations.”

Douglas Barrie, a defence aerospace specialist from the International Institute for Security Studies, said the Buk would have been easily capable of hitting an aircraft at 33,000ft (10,000 metres), the altitude at which MH17 was flying when it disappeared from the screens of air traffic controllers on Thursday.

“That kind of altitude is in the heart of its engagement envelope,” Mr Barrie said.

Russian sources have suggested the Buk system seized by the rebels in Donetsk was poorly maintained or incomplete, and there was speculation that it could not have been fired in such condition.

But Mr Barrie said that while the Buk required specialist training to operate, the launcher could be used crudely even without a separate command vehicle or surveillance radar.

Raw tracking data from a less sophisticated radar which is mounted within the launch vehicle itself would have made it difficult to distinguish a civilian jet from a military plane, possibly explain why Flight MH17 was shot down by mistake, he said.

There were also unconfirmed reports that MH17’s “black box” – the voice data recorder and flight data recorder – has already been found and spirited away to Moscow.

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Mr Avakov, said: “According to the latest information from our intelligence the ‘black boxes’ obtained by the terrorists at the scene will be handed over to their supervisors from FSB [the Russian security service] today on one of the border crossing check-points of Luhansk.

“This would be the one of the many brazen acts of violation of international treaties in the sphere of aircraft accidents investigation by Putin.”

In response, Mr Lavrov said: “Despite what Kiev is again saying, we do not plan to take these boxes. We do not plan to violate existing norms for such situations.

“We want international experts to get to the site of the crash as soon as possible so that they get the black boxes right away.”

Earlier Valentyn Nalivaychenko, Ukraine’s state security chief, releasing recordings and transcipts of what he claimed were intercepted telephone conversations between Russian military intelligence officers and rebel fighters, showing collusion in a missile strike.

One recording featured a man who Mr Nalivaychenko said was Igor Bezler, a rebel group commander, who is heard reporting on the incident to Vasily Geranin, a colonel in Russian military intelligence.

“A plane has just been shot down. It was the ‘mine-laying’ group. They’ve gone to search and photograph the plane. It is smoking,” Bezler says.

In another recording, a rebel fighter going by the nom de guerre of ‘Major’ is heard to say: “Hell. It’s almost 100 per cent certain that it’s a civilian plane.”

Asked by a comrade called ‘The Greek’ if any weapons were found, ‘Major’ says: “No. Civilian things, medical things, towels, toilet paper.”

In a third conversation, a rebel fighter says: “There’s a sea of women and children.”

Yesterday world leaders moved to secure a proper investigation of the wreckage amid fears that interference with the crash site has already fatally compromised crucial evidence.

There were even reports of items of wreckage being taken as souvenirs by locals.

The UN Security Council approved a statement drafted by the British Government which called for “a full, thorough and independent international investigation”.

It called for a crash inquiry to be launched “in accordance with international civil aviation guidelines and for appropriate accountability” and stressed the need for “immediate access by investigators to the crash site to determine the cause of the incident”.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe said 30 observers reached the site as talks continued with the rebels to create a “humanitarian corridor” allowing access to the region.

But it remained unclear which organisation will take the lead role in the mounting a wide-ranging inquiry.

International law sets out that the state in which an air accident occurs will take command of an accident inquiry, said Jim Morris, a former RAF pilot and air accident investigator who is now a barrister specialising in air accident litigation.

It is unknown whether Ukraine has a functioning air accident organisation with the resources and personnel necessary to carry out such a complex inquiry.

Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has called for the United Nations to lead the investigation and the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) confirmed it was sending a team to Ukraine to help.

Downing Street confirmed that specialist teams from British police forces have been sent to the crash site to help recover and repatriate the bodies of the 298 passengers and crew of Flight MH17.

The painstaking process of investigating the Malaysian Airlines disaster will be made immeasurably more complicated by the crash site’s location in the middle of a country on the brink of civil war, experts said.

The investigation will require scrupulous mapping of debris – to help give a clear picture of how and why the fuselage broke up – followed by recovery of every piece of wreckage and possible forensic examination for traces of explosives.

Peter Claiden, who was a senior engineer in the AAIB investigation into the 1988 Lockerbie disaster, said: “There really needs to be a proper, professional investigation if they want to secure evidence from the wreckage.

“It was difficult enough to achieve at Lockerbie so the problems facing investigators in what is effectively a war zone are very serious indeed.”

Mr Claiden, who was responsible for reconstructing part of Pan Am Flight 103 after it was blown up mid-air above the Scottish town killing all 259 onboard and 11 on the ground, said: “The first problem will be to try to identify how widespread the wreckage is.

“They will need to find the infrastructure to take away the wreckage and store it safely.

“If the aircraft was destroyed by a missile, in an ideal world you must get all that wreckage and reassemble it. Then you might get an idea of the origin of the disaster.”

Air accident investigators must sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to establish the cause of a disaster – as in the case of Lockerbie which became Britain’s largest ever murder inquiry.

Part of the fuselage of Pan Am Boeing 747 – which exploded above Lockerbie in December 1988 – was reconstructed in a hangar in Farnborough, Hants, by the AAIB, where it remained for 24 years while diplomatic and legal machinations wore on.

The reconstruction was essential in proving Flight 103 broke up mid-air after the detonation of Semtex high explosive concealed in a Toshiba radio cassette recorder, which was contained in a Samsonite suitcase in the aircraft’s hold.

Fragments of the items, plus a long-delay electronic timer made by a Swiss firm, MEBO, were presented in the trial of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi held under Scottish law in Camp Zeist, the Netherlands, in 2000.


Cover-up: Ukraine rebels destroying all links to MH17 air atrocity
UN demands full inquiry but armed Russian separatists block access to crash site amid confusion over black boxes
Ewen MacAskill, defence correspondent, Harriet Salem in Grabovo and Spencer Ackerman in New York
The Guardian | 18 July 2014

Pro-Russia separatist groups in eastern Ukraine are hastily covering up all links to the Buk missile battery suspected to have been used to shoot down the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, according to western-based defence and intelligence specialists.

As the UN security council called for a "full, thorough independent international investigation" into the downing of the plane, concern that a cover-up was under way was fuelled by a standoff at part of the crash site between observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and rebel gunmen, which ended with a warning shot being fired.

Postings on rebel websites immediately after the crash boasted of having shot down what they claimed was an Antonov Ukrainian military transport plane, but these have been deleted.

The US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, blamed a surface-to-air missile fired by rebels in eastern Ukraine and hinted that they might have had Russian technical help. The rebels are suspected of having used a Russian-built, vehicle-mounted Buk missile system to bring down MH17, killing all 298 passengers and crew. Power called for the crash site to be preserved. "All evidence must be undisturbed," she said. "Russia needs to help make this happen."

But hopes are not high. The OSCE was trying to gain access to one part of the large crash site but the commander of a rebel unit, known as Commander Glum, blocked them. After the warning shot, the OSCE convoy departed.


There is also confusion over the black boxes and other devices apparently salvaged from the plane. A rebel military commander initially said he was considering what to do with them, while another rebel leader, Aleksandr Borodai, contradicting his colleague, said the rebels had no black boxes or any other devices.

The Ukrainian interior ministry added to fears of a cover-up when it released video purportedly taken by police showing a truck carrying a Buk missile launcher with one of its four missiles apparently missing, rolling towards the Russian border at dawn . The video could not be independently verified.

Other material on rebel social media sites was being deleted, including pictures showing the alleged capture of Buk missile vehicles by rebels from a Ukrainian air base last month.

Rebels said the boast on the social media site on Thursday that a plane had been shot down was not put up by them but by a sympathiser who mistakenly assumed it was a Ukrainian military plane that had been shot down. But in a separate posting a rebel leader also claimed that a plane had been brought down. "We warned you – do not fly in our sky," he said. That too was removed.

A Nato intelligence specialist quoted by the military analysts Janes said the recordings "show that the Russian ‘helpers’ realise that they now have an international incident on their hands – and they probably also gave the order for separatists to erase all evidence – including those internet postings. It will be interesting to see if we ever find this Buk battery again or if someone now tries to dump it into a river."

Video footage allegedly taken on Thursday appeared to support the idea that pro-Russia separatists had been to blame. It showed a Buk battery seemingly being moved in the rebel-held area between Snizhne and Torez close to the crash site. A still picture allegedly shows a missile in vertical launch mode beside a supermarket in Torez. However, the location has still to be established.

Ukrainian intelligence has published a tape said to be a recording between rebels and Russian intelligence in which they realise there has been a catastrophic blunder. One recording is said to be between a rebel commander, Igor Bezler, and a Russian intelligence officer in which he says: "We have just shot down a plane." A second recording from an unidentified source puts the blame on Cossack militiamen.

Defence analysts with Russian expertise shared Power’s scepticism that Russia-backed rebel groups would have had the expertise to fire the missile and suggested it was more likely to have been Russian ground troops who specialise in air defence, seconded to help the rebels.

At the Pentagon, officials said a motive for the operation had yet to be determined, as had the chain of command. One said it would be "surprising to us" if pro-Russia separatists were able to operate the Buk missile battery without Russian technical support. The Ukrainian military confirmed it has Buk batteries but said it had none in the area the missile was fired.

Nato had Awacs surveillance and command-and-control planes flying in the Baltics around the time of the crash, but Pentagon officials did not think the aircraft picked up indications of the disaster.

Bob Latiff, a former US weapons developer for the air force and the CIA and now a professor at Notre Dame University, said he leaned towards a belief that it was a case of mistaken identity on the part of those who pressed the button.

"A radar return from an airplane like this would look very similar to that from a cargo plane, as was initially claimed by the separatists. If radar was all they were using, that is a shame," he said. "All airliners emit identification signals which identify the aircraft and provide other information like altitude and speed. They also operate on known communications frequencies. It doesn’t sound like the separatists were using any of this.

"My guess is the system’s radar saw a return from a big ‘cargo’ plane flying at 30,000 ft or so and either automatically fired, or some aggressive, itchy operator fired, not wanting to miss an opportunity."

Latiff said that if they had only one radar, as Ukrainian officials suggest, it would have been pointed at the target. A second, rotating one would normally have been part of a battery to pick up other planes in the immediate vicinity, but he said even that would not have established whether it was a commercial plane and there would normally have been communications equipment to pick up signals showing the plane was non-military.

Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military specialist at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said he regarded the tape recordings as genuine, as well as postings on social media pointing the finger at pro-Russia separatists or Russia itself.

But getting evidence would be very difficult. He said: "A decision has been made on the Russian side to hide their tracks. It will be hard to find the battery." Satellites might have been able to catch something, but the trail from the missile would have been very short, Sutyagin said.


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