ROBERT MENDICK; Ben Farmer; Roland Oliphant
Sunday Telegraph (London) | July 27, 2014
THE INQUIRY into the shooting down of Flight MH17 risks becoming hopelessly compromised by the failure of official investigators to inspect the crash site properly, after rebels had nine days to destroy and tamper with vital evidence.
The probable launch site of the ground-to-air missile, found by a Sunday Telegraph reporting team, also remains unexplored by the Dutch offi-cials leading the investigation.
Experts fear that the inquiry has become bogged down almost before it has begun, raising the prospect of years of wrangling between the Kremlin and the West over what happened to the Malaysia Airlines jet, which crashed into a field in eastern Ukraine killing all 298 people on board.
A team of unarmed Dutch troops – made up of military police and special forces – and Australian police is finally to be deployed this week on the ground in rebel-held eastern Ukraine in an attempt to secure the site.
Until now, fears for their safety at the hands of heavily armed militia have prevented official crash inspectors from going there, although hundreds of journalists as well as locals have visited the scene over several days. The circumstantial evidence against Russian-backed separatists seems overwhelming.
But precisely who fired the missile, who supplied it and who ordered it is unknown. Here, The Sunday Telegraph examines what we know, and don’t know, about Flight MH17.
The Sunday Telegraph’s own inquiries suggest the missile – an SA-11 from a Buk mobile rocket launcher – was possibly fired from a cornfield about 12 miles to the south of the main crash site.
Scorch marks in the soil indicate where the rocket’s propulsion system may have set fire to the crops.
The location of the site tallies with a surveillance photograph, released by Ukraine’s intelligence service, showing a signature trail of smoke emanating from beyond a hill in rebel-held eastern Ukraine.
The Telegraph’s investigation corroborates analysis by Ukraine at War, a pro-Kiev English-language blog, suggesting that the smoke trail from an SA-11 appeared to originate from the direction of the cornfield.
The photograph appears to have been taken from a highrise apartment block overlooking the area.
The location is further corroborated by evidence apparently obtained by Ukraine intelligence, which suggests the launcher was transported into Ukraine from Russia at 1am on July 17, about 15 hours before Flight MH17 was downed, and then taken to a site near the village of Pervomaiski. The field is within a few hundred yards of the village.
Experts insist that both the crash and possible launch site needed to be treated like crime scenes.
The passage of time may have compromised any investigation, allowing the Russians and Kremlin-backed rebels to blame Ukraine forces for the disaster while questioning the veracity and neutrality of Ukrainian intelligence gathering.
"It will be almost impossible to say who pushed the button," said Reed Foster, the head of the armed forces capabilities team at the intelligence and security analysts IHS Jane’s Defence.
"The evidence at the crash site will not tell you if it was a Ukraine or Russian operator of the Buk launcher.
"It is very easy for the Russians to maintain plausible deniability. The launch site needs to be found and treated like a crime scene. There will be telltale signs of chemical residue where the rocket motor has ignited the flora and fauna.
"But even once you have identified the site it is still dif-ficult to know who the persons were at that location."
Debris from the crash scene will at some stage be removed and analysed. Photographs taken of Boeing 777 debris shows the metal skin perforated with a number of similar sized holes.
The evidence is consistent with a ground-to-air missile attack from a Buk-launched SA-11 missile, said Mr Foster.
Shrapnel from the missile is likely to be scattered at the crash site, stretching over about eight square miles.
Vital evidence such as the missile casing and rocket motor, containing factory serial numbers, could have been removed by now by the rebel militia who control the area.
Even if the casing and motor is found, Russian-made SA-11 missiles are in possession of both sides in the conflict.
The Dutch authorities – the country lost 189 citizens – are leading the investigation, to remove claims of bias that would be levelled against a Ukraine-led team. They are only now planning to secure the site with 50 unarmed military police across a huge area that remains a war zone.
Chris Yates, an independent aviation analyst who has worked as a consultant on a number of air crashes, said the promise to finally secure the site may already be too late. "I am afraid this is going to go on for years for the simple reason the crash site is now substantially contaminated," said Mr Yates.
"People have been trampling all over it; debris has been shifted, cut up and removed; the whole area has been interfered with."
In normal circumstances, said Mr Yates, debris and bodies should only be moved under controlled conditions with the authorisation of offi-cial inspectors and not before photographs are taken.
"The problem is the people trampling over the site including Russian-backed rebels who know what they are looking for and are probably trying to sanitise the site," he said.
Reports claim rebels may have even tried to sabotage the scene by scattering pieces of metal unrelated to the aircraft, simply to confuse investigators. Rebels have argued that debris has only been moved or cut up to allow them to recover bodies.
As of Friday night, there were still 71 people unaccounted for. Investigators will also want access to possible radar data.
David Gleave, aviation expert at Loughborough University and formerly a chief safety investigator in the airline industry, said if Ukraine had recorded ‘primary radar’ data it could show the trajectory of the missile, allowing investigators to work out exactly where it was launched.
Black box data, downloaded by a British team at the Air Accidents Investigation Branch in Farnborough, and passed to the Dutch for analysis is unlikely to yield many clues, said Mr Gleave. The cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder will rule out other causes of the crash and will give a precise time for the disaster. But if Flight MH17 was hit by a missile, the incident would have been so quick that no recordings of the crews’ reaction to the strike will exist.
Prof Anthony Glees, director of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies, said that the investigation could take many years but he expected that the perpetrators would be eventually charged with war crimes.
"The pictures of the fuselage which show the effect of the explosion on the aircraft, with the twisted metal facing inside the structure, clearly shows that the plane was shot down. But getting the evidence to prove who actually carried it out may take a very long time. All the black boxes are going to show is that the plane suffered an extreme and catastrophic event which ended the flight – it won’t tell us who did it.
"The only way we are going to find out what really happened and who is responsible is by getting hold of the logbooks of those who were operating the missile system. The Ukrainian separatist thugs must be made to hand over the information and there should be some kind of armed intervention at the wreckage site to allow accident investigators to carry out their work unhindered."
Beyond forensic evidence on the ground, the most damning evidence unearthed so far comes from Ukraine’s security service.
It has made public apparent telephone transcripts between rebel forces, detailing discussions of the attack on the aircraft, both before and after the plane was downed; surveillance photographs showing Buk missile launchers moving back across the border to Russia; and the photographs apparently of the missile smoke trail.
The Ukraine evidence lays the blame on the separatists who thought they had spotted a Ukraine military transport plane – an Antonov AN-26 – but mistook the passenger jet for a military aircraft with catastrophic consequences. Three days before MH17 crashed, just such a military plane was downed by rebels in the same area.
On Friday, the Ukraine security service released a telephone transcript in which Igor Bezler, nicknamed "The Devil" and described as a colonel in Russia’s military intelligence directorate, discusses detecting the plane two minutes before the alleged missile strike.
In another recording, Bezler is apparently heard to say: "We have just shot down a plane," which another rebel officer arriving on the scene of the crash, clarifies, is "100 per cent civilian." About half an hour after the crash, a posting on a Russian social networking account from Igor Strelkov, military leader of the rebel held "Donetsk People’s Republic", stated: "We warned you not to fly in our skies." The posting was hastily deleted after it became apparent the plane was a passenger jet.
Western intelligence agencies have remained tightlipped if they do have concrete evidence of who fired the missile. A US intelligence official said last week: "We don’t know a name, we don’t know a rank and we’re not even 100 per cent sure of a nationality", adding: "There is not going to be a Perry Mason moment here" in a reference to a fictional crime solving lawyer.
US infrared satellite technology picked up the explosion, but that does not show who fired the missile nor the precise involvement of the Russians. It remains possible the separatists used a missile launcher seized from the Ukraine army.
For the relations and friends of those who died, including 10 British citizens and more than 80 children, the uncertainty and confusion will be deeply upsetting. While the most likely scenario points to the involvement of Russianbacked rebels, the question remains whether Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, should also be held to account.
Pam Dix, whose brother died in the Lockerbie bombing, fears that victims’ relatives will suffer ongoing anxiety in the search for the truth.
In the case of Lockerbie, in which a Pan Am jet was blown up over the Scottish town, one Libyan intelligence official was jailed for murder but doubts remain 25 years on about the conviction, with many blaming Iran rather than Libya for the atrocity.
"The situation for the families from MH17 is agonising – waiting for news of whether they can get the bodies back, for information about what happened, who did it and why," said Mrs Dix.
"At least after Lockerbie we could travel to the site to see the debris for ourselves, and investigators could have access in order to establish as many facts as they could.
"Twenty-five years later we still don’t know why Pan Am 103 was bombed and who ordered it. For the MH17 families the investigation will be just if not more frustrating. The political situation in Ukraine and Russia means it could be years before any proper information or evidence emerges."
Pier Cottee-Jones, 21, whose best friend Richard Mayne, a student from Leicester, died in the MH17 crash, said: "It is pretty clear what happened. But it is quite frustrating with the finger pointing and [governments] getting childlike about it. I don’t care about putting someone in jail and throwing away the key. I just want closure for us."
Additional reporting by Roland Oliphant and Ben Farmer in Ukraine
1 THE ROCKET LAUNCH SITE
SA-11 missile Guided by ground radar, it carries around 46lbs of explosives and detonates about 100 to 300ft away from the target
The missile detonates creating a shrapnel cloud that strikes the aircraft with the intent of damaging its critical parts including engines and wings
Speed: Mach 3
Range: 20 miles
WHAT WE KNOW
Flight MH17 was almost certainly brought down by a ground-to-air missile fired from rebel-held eastern Ukraine. The SA-11 missile was in all probability fired from a Russianbuilt Buk, a mobile rocket launcher, which carries four missiles. The missiles are radarguided and capable of hitting targets at a height of 50,000ft
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
Who fired the rocket or precisely where from. If Western intelligence agencies know, they are not saying. Investigations by The Sunday Telegraph – using Ukraine intelligence photographs of a telltale plume of smoke – point to a cornfield 12 miles from the epicentre of the crash site as a possible launch site. Scorch marks could be a sign of a missile ignition. Official investigators have not been there
2 THE CRASH SITE
Wreckage in Shaktarsk, the day after the crash. Inset, wreckage burning
Left, a Buk launcher; what Kiev says is smoke from a missile near the crash site and wreckage miles from the main concentration of debris
WHAT WE KNOW
Near the town of Grabovo and covering eight square miles, the crash site is under the control of armed separatists hostile to investigators from the Dutch-led team.
The official team has not yet been able to work in the area and reports suggest forensic evidence has been tampered with by rebels and the scene compromised. Some 227 bodies have been accounted for, but 71 have not been found
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
Is potentially damning forensic evidence, including the missile’s casing and rocket motor, still at the site, or has it been removed? It is unclear if tampering with evidence has been ordered by rebel leaders – or even the Kremlin – or whether material was simply looted by locals or moved in a cack-handed manner in an attempt to pull bodies out of the wreckage
3 THE INTELLIGENCE
Journalists at the scene as a pro-Russian separatist guards bodies
WHAT WE KNOW Ukraine’s security service has released telephone intercepts and photographic material that claims to provide overwhelming evidence that Russian-backed separatists are responsible. Voice recordings seem to show the approach of Flight MH17 being flagged up two minutes before it was hit by rebels followed by the realisation in the aftermath that they had hit a passenger jet rather than a Ukraine military aircraft
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW What precise material, including phone intercepts and satellite imagery, Western intelligence agencies possess. The big question remains: can Western governments link the attack directly to Vladimir Putin and the Russian military? If they can, do the governments want to expose Mr Putin at this stage, which could lead to a new Cold War?
4 THE INVESTIGATION
What is believed to be the rocket launcher in eastern Ukraine with a missile missing
Left, Igor Bezler, commander of the rebel unit being blamed; below, investigators examine the wreckage
Aircraft carry two so-called black boxes
Flight Data Recorder Records flight information, including airspeed, altitude and engine performance, as well as systems such as autopilot, throttle and position of the flaps and rudder
Cockpit voice recorder Units record for 25 hours of all aircraft communications
WHAT WE KNOW
The Dutch Safety Board, based in The Hague, is now leading the inquiry, heading off claims that a Ukraine-led investigation would be inherently biased against Russia. Unarmed military police and special forces from Holland along with Australian police officers are being sent to eastern Ukraine to try to secure the crash site as a crime scene.
Black boxes recovered from the plane are being analysed in The Hague
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
What material the black boxes contain or whether they will provide much useful material anyway.
On the ground, it is unclear whether rebels will allow the Dutch full access to the site or even cooperate at all. It is likely the perpetrators have fled by now and doubts remain whether the Dutch can find who pressed the button to fire and who gave the command to do so
A separatist with the ‘black box’ recorder before it was handed over to officials
Flight MH17 took off from Amsterdam at 11.30am BST and was due to land at Kuala Lumpur at 10.50pm. The plane made its way over Germany, Poland and Ukraine. But at 1.21pm radar contact was suddenly lost over eastern Ukraine
Flight MH17 was on Airway L980 which had remained open during the Ukrainian conflict. Malaysia Airlines a flight plan requested a cruising altitude of 35,000ft through Ukraine airspace but traffic control instructed to fly at 33,000ft
BOEING 777 Cruise speed 560mph Passenger capacity 368 Cost £175,000,000 Manufacturer Boeing Commercial Airplanes
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