THE cockpit of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was riddled with "high energy objects" when the Boeing 777 broke up over eastern Ukraine, according to the first expert report on the aircraft's fate.
The preliminary findings of the Dutch Safety Board's investigation provide a detailed account of what caused the airliner to crash on July 17 with the loss of all 298 passengers and crew.
The report stops short of saying that a surface-to-air missile destroyed MH17 as it flew between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, but it provides much evidence to support that conclusion.
Data from the flight recorder showed no "aircraft system warnings" and no alerts of any malfunctions. Instead, the "data stopped abruptly" a few seconds after 1.20pm, when the aircraft "broke up in the air".
The last words from the cockpit, uttered three seconds before the disaster, were a simple acknowledgement of an instruction from air traffic control.
The fuselage was perforated with "multiple holes and indentations". The report says that "the material around the holes was deformed in a manner consistent with being punctured by high-energy objects" which "originated from outside the fuselage".
The physical evidence showed that the cockpit suffered some of the worst damage, with "puncture holes" suggesting "small objects" entered from above floor-level.
Experts said this was consistent with a surface-to-air missile exploding alongside the plane, riddling it with shrapnel and causing it to break apart.
"The simplest explanation of the images of the various perforated pieces of the aircraft is attack by a large anti-aircraft warhead," said Ben Barry, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The Boeing was flying at 33,000ft over an area controlled by pro-Russian rebels. Western governments believe that it fell victim to a Buk anti-aircraft missile supplied to the insurgents by the Russian government. At least three Ukrainian military aircraft were shot down by surface-to-air missiles in the area the previous month.
The rebels were accused of removing evidence from the crash site. While the aircraft's wreckage shows unmistakable "puncture holes", the actual "foreign objects" that inflicted the damage have not been found.
However, Russian state media has continually insinuated that Ukraine shot down the aircraft, and an opinion poll published in July by the Levada Centre in Moscow found that only 4 per cent of Russians thought that rebels or Russian forces shot down the plane.
The fate of Flight MH17 hardened opinion in Europe against Vladimir Putin's policies in Ukraine and his sponsorship of the rebels. But the European Union failed to agree yesterday to implement a new package of economic sanctions targeting Russian state-owned energy companies.
New restrictions on financing for these companies have been agreed in principle, but a coalition of countries including Germany, Finland and Italy prevented them from coming into effect yesterday. A diplomat in Brussels said they "blinked, leaving the sanctions in a legal limbo".
An assessment of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and of the progress of the peace plan will precede any enforcement of the sanctions. "Depending on the situation on the ground, the EU stands ready to review the agreed sanctions in whole or in part," said an official statement.
Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, the Ukrainian ambassador to the EU, called for immediate sanctions to punish Russia for deploying troops inside its borders.
Almost two months after the disaster, much of the wreckage of the jet remains scattered in the fields near the town of Torez. The shredded remains of the cockpit still lie in a sunflower field. Above the hamlet of Grabovo, the fields are littered with everything from chunks of fuselage to seats, oxygen masks, and suitcases.
Rebel tanks were deployed on Tuesday at strategic points along the road between the crash site and the city of Donetsk. Despite the ceasefire, the sound of an artillery bombardment was audible.