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MH17: killer still elusive

World

The Hague - The grieving families of the 298 passengers and crew murdered aboard flight MH17 can draw little comfort from the final report into the tragedy.

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The reconstructed wreckage of the MH17 airplane is seen after the presentation of the final report into the crash of July 2014 of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, in Gilze Rijen. Picture: Michael KoorenTjibbe Joustra, Chairman of the Dutch Safety Board, speaks during a press conference to present the report findings of the Dutch Safety Board in Gilze Rijen. Picture: Robin van LonkhuijsenIvy Loi, wife of MH17 co-pilot Eugene Choo, poses with a picture of her husband, at home in Seremban, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Picture: Olivia Harris

The Dutch Safety Board confirmed on Tuesday what most had suspected: that the Boeing 777 was shot down by a Russian-built Buk surface-to-air missile, launched from eastern Ukraine.

But the 279-page report does not address who fired the weapon, nor who ordered the destruction of so many innocent people aboard a routine Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

At a Dutch airbase, investigators pieced together fragments of the cockpit and cabin, which were ripped apart by the explosion.

They concluded that the warhead had been travelling at more than 1 500mph when it exploded close to the nose of the aircraft, just 10 feet left of the cockpit and 13 feet above it.

Their evidence includes analysis of the microphones on the flight deck, which showed a tiny difference in when the noise of the explosion reached each of the instruments.

The investigators have also created a computer-generated reconstruction showing the effects of the blast.

The shape of the fragments of shrapnel found in the wreckage and in the bodies of some of those onboard gives certainty, say the investigators, that “the aircraft was struck by a 9N315M warhead as carried on a 9M38-series missile, and launched by a Buk surface-to-air missile system.”

Because of the proximity of the warhead to the flight deck, the report concludes that the two pilots on duty - together with the purser - died instantly.

But it is not possible to determine how or when exactly the passengers and other crew died.

The impact itself could have rendered many unconscious, with factors such as extreme cold and a decrease in oxygen levels causing “reduced awareness” in others.

“It is likely the occupants were barely able to comprehend the situation in which they found themselves,” says the Dutch Safety Board.

“The majority... seated in the cabin suffered multiple fractures consistent with the in-flight disintegration of the aeroplane and ground impact.”

Most of the passengers were Dutch; 10 were British.

The relatives of the victims were given details of the report a few hours ahead of the world's media.

From it they learnt that their loved ones had been aboard one of 160 flights that crossed the airspace over the Ukrainian village of Hrabove on 17 July 2014.

The report identifies the fatal series of errors that led to the shooting down.

The first is that the airspace was open. “Why was the aeroplane flying over an area where there was an ongoing armed conflict?” it asks.

Just three days before the attack, the Ukrainian authorities had briefed Western diplomats about the shooting down of a military transport aircraft over the conflict zone.

Investigators found that Ukraine raised the minimum “safe” altitude, a few days before the attack, to 32 000ft - 1 000ft below the level at which MH17 was flying.

The report does not account for why the change was made, nor why the authorities failed to close the air-traffic sector completely.

Airlines make their own decisions about flight paths. At the time of the shooting-down some carriers had decided to avoid eastern Ukraine, even though that meant longer journeys and higher fuel consumption.

It appears that if the aviation community had been aware of what the Western intelligence services knew at the time about the weaponry on the ground, no civilian aircraft would have flown above the area.

The report criticises the Ukrainian authorities for failing to close the airspace over the conflict zone.

It says Malaysia Airlines did not conduct any additional risk assessment, nor discuss the possible dangers with its “code-share” partner, KLM.

“This was despite the fact that the conflict was expanding into the air, and that, according to the Ukrainian authorities, weapons systems were being used that could reach civil aeroplanes at cruising altitude,” it says.

At the start of its report the Dutch Safety Board makes clear that it would not apportion blame.

“It is the task of the criminal investigation to provide that answer.”

But circumstantial evidence and sightings on the ground overwhelmingly point to a Russian Buk surface-to-air system that first arrived on the ground near Snezhnoe the day MH17 was brought down.

Rob Fredriksz, the father of Bryce Fredriksz who had been onboard the flight, said: “It was a Buk missile, made in Russia. That was clearly indicated. That Ukraine should have closed the air space and that the passengers absolutely felt and knew nothing.”

The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called on Russia to co-operate with in an international criminal investigation into the crash.

He said the key priority now was “tracking down and prosecuting the perpetrators”. Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak said: “Fifteen months may have passed, but our commitment to bringing the perpetrators to justice remains as strong as it was on that fateful day when hundreds of innocent people lost their lives in a conflict that was not theirs.”

Hours before the board's report was published, the Russian government attempted to deflect the blame from the rebel army in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic.

To the sound of throbbing music, translation into five languages and multiple onscreen explosions, the Russian arms company that produced Buk missiles summoned a press conference to point the finger at pro-Ukrainian forces.

Executives from the defence contractor Almaz-Antey told journalists that the type of Buk missile system used to down the MH17 flight had been decommissioned by the Russian army in 2011.

They also showed graphs to try to prove that the missile was fired from a site on territory likely to have been under Ukrainian control at the time.

Almaz-Antey said its investigation proved the missile was fired from in, or near, the eastern Ukrainian village of Zaroshchenskoe.

Reports differ over whether Zaroshchenskoe was under the control of the Ukrainian army or the insurgents at the time.

As part of its own investigation, Almaz-Antey blew up a Buk missile close to a Soviet-designed Ilyushin Il-86 aircraft.

They showed videos of the devastation wrought on the plane by the blast, including footage filmed from the point of view of passengers in the business-class section.

Damage on MH17 showed it was struck by a Buk missile of a kind not produced since 1986, that was not in use by the Russian army but to which the Ukrainian army had easy access, according to Almaz-Antey.

The discovery of shrapnel in the bodies or baggage of those who died would be further proof that the missile was fired from Zaroshchenskoe, according to the company.

Russian versions of how MH17 was destroyed have changed over recent months, moving away from the initial claim put forward by the Russian defence ministry in May that the plane was deliberately brought down by a Ukrainian jet.

Russian officials have been accused of using doctored photographs in attempts to prove that rebel forces were not responsible.

The Dutch Safety Board has made a series of recommendations to governments and airlines intended to prevent any repeat.

“The ball is now in the court of the states and the aviation sector,” the report concludes.

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