Friday 30 September 2016

MH17 victims could have been conscious for 90 seconds as plane plunged after missile hit

MH17 airliner destroyed by Buk missile fired from eastern Ukraine

Published 13/10/2015 | 23:11

Passengers on doomed flight MH17 could have been conscious for 90 seconds before the doomed plane crashed to earth, a report into the 2014 crash has revealed.

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At 4.20pm on the afternoon of July 17 last year, a Buk 9M38 anti-aircraft missile exploded feet from the left port side of the cockpit of fateful Malaysian Airlines flight 17, killing the three crew members on the flight deck instantly. For the other 290 or so other passengers, however, death was likely not so swift.

Results of a 15-month, seven-country investigation into the shooting down of the passenger plane which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpa - led by the Dutch Safety Board - were released on Tuesday, revealing how the tragedy of MH17 unfolded in unprecedented detail, including the type of missile used, where it was fired from, and how the aircraft broke up.

 While the missile's impact was instantly fatal to some of the crew, passengers further back on the plane were likely conscious for up to 90 seconds as the plane plunged to earth, its findings revealed.

The investigators unveiled a ghostly reconstruction of the downed plane to the journalists and family members of victims at a conference in Gilze-Rijen, central Netherlands. Some of the nose, cockpit and business class of the Boeing 777 were rebuilt from fragments of the aircraft recovered from the crash scene.

 Ukraine and Western nations have contended that the missile was launched by Russian-backed rebels, and while the the report did not apportion blame, the findings indicated the aircraft was shot down by a Russian-built anti-aircraft missile launched from a 120-square-mile area south of the town of Snizhne, most of which was controlled by Moscow-backed separatists at the time.

A pro-Russian separatist stands at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, in this July 18, 2014 file photo. Photo: REUTERS
A pro-Russian separatist stands at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, in this July 18, 2014 file photo. Photo: REUTERS

It also finally ruled out the theory that the aircraft was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet - a theory proposed by Russian defence officials and representative of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the break-away state which controls the crash site.

Safety Board chairman Tjibbe Joustra had stern words for the Ukrainian authorities, saying that they should have entirely closed airspace in the war zone to civilian traffic before the crash due to the raging conflict between Kiev's forces and pro-Russian separatist insurgents.

"There was sufficient reason for the Ukrainian authorities to close the air space above the eastern part of their country," Mr Joustra said, saying that at least 16 Ukrainian military aircraft and helicopters had been shot down in the area in the months before the crash.

About 160 civilian aircraft passed over the area on the day MH17 was downed until airspace was closed after the crash, the report found.

But Russian officials immediately moved to cast doubt on the findings, releasing their own rival report just hours before the Dutch which claimed that an older kind of warhead had been used and that it had been fired from another position, southwest of the launch site.

 The state-owned company that provided the Russian contribution to the launch-site analysis presented in the Dutch report attempted to U-turn on its own findings on Tuesday, saying the safety board was wrong about both the type of rocket used and where it came from.

Almaz Antey, which builds Buk missiles, said it had replicated the Dutch account of the crash by using a 9N314M Buk war-head to blow up the cockpit of a decommissioned aircraft in a controlled experiment on October 7.

But the company claimed the experiment had produced distinctive butterfly-shaped holes that it said were not been seen on MH17’s wreckage, and failed to produce a the kind of damage inflicted on MH17’s left engine.

The company said MH17 must have been downed by a 9M38 missile, an older model that Russia says it withdrew from service in 2011, but which Ukraine is still believed to use.

The Almaz Antey claims directly contradict both the Dutch findings, which found butterfly-shaped fragments throughout the wreckage as well as in bodies of the victims, and Almaz Antei’s own original claim, made in a report released in June, that said the aircraft had probably been hit by precisely those kinds of fragments.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called on Russia to fully cooperate with the criminal investigation into the downing of the plane. He said a key priority "is now tracking down and prosecuting the perpetrators."

The Safety Board’s report is a strictly technical air accident investigation and does not apportion blame or criminal responsibility for the shoot down.

A separate criminal investigation, led by the Dutch police and including detectives from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, and Ukraine, is due to report next year.

Dutch prosecutors have said that they expect to produce a dossier of evidence for prosecuting charges of murder and possibly war crimes.

While no suspects have been named, prosecutors are believed to have identified “persons of interest.”

They likely include key separatist commanders at the time, including Igor Strelkov, the former defence minster and chief military commander of the Donetsk People’s Republic, and Alexander Borodai, the then-prime minister of the republic. Both men, who now live in Moscow, maintain their forces never possessed a Buk missile launcher.

Less is known about those believed to have been directly involved with the operation and launch of the missile, although Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, has said the missile launcher was accompanied by a former French foreign legionnaire with the call sign Gyurza (Viper).

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