A long-awaited investigation by international prosecutors has found that the anti-aircraft missile used to down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine two years ago was transported from Russia and fired by pro-Russian separatists.
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The investigation’s conclusions provide the most comprehensive account of the plane’s downing, which killed all 298 aboard, and offered the most significant evidence yet of Moscow’s involvement in the supply of the missile and subsequent efforts to cover it up.
During a presentation today in Nieuwegein, the Netherlands, the joint investigation team (JIT), led by Dutch prosecutors, said it concluded “without any doubt” that the flight was hit by a powerful ground-to-air missile fired by pro-Russian rebels and that it established the missile’s route from Russia to the launch site.
“Based on the criminal investigation, we can conclude that Flight MH17 was shot down on July 17, 2014, by a BUK missile brought from the territory of the Russian Federation and that after it was launched, the system returned to Russia,” Wilbert Paulissen, a Dutch investigator, said at a news conference.
The investigators did not yet accuse Russia of supplying the missile, saying the next stage of the team’s investigation would focus on establishing who fired it and who gave the order. However, the JIT said it has already identified 100 individuals connected with the shooting and was working to establish levels of involvement. Although the investigation did not offer a definitive conclusion why the missile was fired, it appeared to support previous theories that the rebels shot down the airliner after mistaking it for a Ukrainian air force plane.
Russia immediately denounced the JIT investigation, launching a barrage of criticism and claims intended to dismiss the findings, with a spokesman from the country’s Foreign Ministry declaring the inquiry “biased and politically motivated.”
Since the airliner was shot down, Russian officials and state media have issued a shifting stream of contradictory explanations for the downing. Russia’s Defense Ministry first claimed the plane was targeted by a Ukrainian fighter jet and produced satellite images that were later shown to be fake. Pro-Kremlin media at one stage claimed the aircraft was packed with corpses by the CIA before it took off.
On Monday, Russia’s Defense Ministry released new radar images that it claimed showed that the missile could not have been fired by the rebels and must have come from territory under Ukrainian control. The ministry said that since its images showed no missile, it could have been fired only from Ukrainian positions.
Just an hour before the JIT delivered its findings, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, reiterated that claim, saying it was “undeniable.”
The JIT investigators, however, refuted that, saying that not only no evidence existed to show the missile was fired from where the Russians claimed but also the evidence showing it came from rebel territory was so abundant that the radar images could not change the overall conclusion of the investigation.
“The discussion about the radar images can be concluded today,” Fred Westerbeke, the Netherland’s chief prosecutor, told reporters. “But our evidence covers a far broader scope than just radar material. We have gathered so much evidence that we can answer the question as to which weapon was used and, more importantly, exactly where this weapon was launched.”
The Dutch investigation collected and analyzed a vast amount of material, compiling it into 6,000 reports. Investigators questioned 200 witnesses, including from around the launch site, analyzed half a million videos and listened to 150,000 intercepted phone calls. The investigation reconstructed the entire front of the aircraft from fragments and carried out explosive simulations. The findings were corroborated by multiple types of evidence and backed up by previous independent investigations.
Using painstaking forensic analysis, satellite imagery, witness reports, intercepted communications and extensive reconstructions, the JIT showed that a 9M38 Buk-Telar-type anti-aircraft missile exploded in front of Flight MH17’s cockpit.
The JIT was able to reconstruct the missile’s itinerary as it was driven on a trailer from Russia to the launch site in Ukraine. Telephone conversations intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence showed rebels asking for the system to fend off Ukrainian air attacks the day before the downing. They were allegedly promised it would arrive that night.
The investigation then established the missile’s route, relying on intercepted calls, videos and photographs and witness testimonies as it wound its way through the towns of Pervomaisk and Snizhne to the launch site. Witnesses around the site described hearing the missile launched; photographs showed burn marks where the launch set the field ablaze.
Satellite imagery supplied by the European Space Agency and U.S. intelligence backed up the location. Further phone intercepts and video material, all published by the JIT, showed the missile being moved across the border from Russia.
“Given the wealth and diversity of evidence gathered by the JIT, we have no doubt whatsoever that the conclusions we are presenting today are accurate,” Westerbeke said.
Russian state media swiftly began churning out alternative theories. The Russian manufacturer of the missiles convened a press conference to claim that its simulations proved that the missile could have been fired only from territory controlled by Ukrainian forces, saying the Dutch had inaccurate technical data about the missile.
Russian officials suggested they were excluded from the investigation so that it could be manipulated.
“The international investigators barred Moscow from a full-fledged participation in the process of inquiry,” said Maria Zakharova, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman.
JIT investigators said they made repeated requests to Russia for more information and that the majority of their inquiries were ignored. In his presentation, Paulissen showed that the JIT analyzed the possible launch sites indicated by the Russian military, going to exhaustive lengths to examine them.
The investigation now seeks to bring a criminal case against individuals. The JIT issued a call for witnesses, saying it was working to establish the chain of command that led to the missile’s firing. Intercepted phone calls played during the presentation suggested the plane’s downing was a mistake, with the recording appearing to show rebels confused after it happened. In a call from the day after the downing, an alleged fighter can be heard saying, “Yesterday was a mess.”
The prosecutors could not give a time frame for the investigation, but the agreement that established the JIT has been extended to 2018. A number of private lawsuits brought by victims’ relatives are underway and are expected to draw on the investigation.