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Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Evidence mounting of pro-Russian link to attack

Social media offering vital clues into responsibility for outrage

While fighting raged in the region where flight MH17 was downed, a separate battle was being fought to build a case against pro-Russian separatists thought to be responsible for the plane’s destruction.

From recordings of tapped phone calls between panicking rebel leaders to footage posted on social media of a Russian-built Buk-M1 missile launcher close to the scene of the crash, the evidence is wide-ranging.

Some of it, such as transcripts of mobile phone conversations between separatist leaders, has been partially verified by the US. Other elements, including efforts to pinpoint the location of the launcher, are the subject of detective work by both intelligence professionals and bloggers alike.

Unlike the pro-Western government in Kiev, Washington has been slow to point the finger directly at Moscow. But the case against the separatists and their Russian backers becomes increasingly compelling.

The tape recordings

Within hours of the crash, the Ukrainian security service – SBU – posted recordings claimed to have been of conversations between separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine in the minutes after the launch of an SA-11 missile from a Buk-M1 at 4.20pm on 17 July.

Rebel forces had been increasingly successful in shooting down Ukrainian government aircraft in the preceding weeks and initially claimed to have downed an Antonov AN-26 transport plane. In one recording, Igor Bezler, the supposed leader of the team operating the Buk-M1 launcher thought to be responsible for the attack, tells a Russian intelligence officer: “The group of the Miner has just shot down a plane.”

In another, a “Cossack” commander, Nikolai Kozitsyn, whose unit has been blamed for firing the missile, responds to being told a Malaysia Airlines plane has been destroyed.

He said: “That means they were carrying spies. They shouldn’t be [expletive] flying. There is a war going on.”

The SBU has built up an extensive archive of intercepted recordings of untested reliability. But Washington has described the material as “authentic”, after comparing the voices to confirmed recordings of separatists.

Photographs and videos of Buk-M1 launcher

Social media has played a central role in disseminating and corroborating evidence of the presence of at least one Buk-M1 launcher in the vicinity of the disaster. At least three videos and photographs, including footage shot by a Western journalist, show the tracked launcher being carried by a lorry between Snizhne and Torez, to the south of the crash zone, prior to the disaster, early in the afternoon of 17 July.

Further footage appears to show the same lorry driving through Snizhne after the attack towards the Russian border, possibly with only three of its four missiles on board.

The location of these images has been corroborated by internet-based investigators, notably American Aric Toler and British blogger Brown Moses, using open-source material ranging from Google Maps to YouTube videos shot by a motorist driving in Torez.

Deleted social media boasts

Even as the plume of dark smoke rose over the Grabovo village crash site of MH17, rebel commanders wasted no time in publicising what they said was another victory over Ukrainian air power.

VK, a popular Russian-language social networking site, carried a purported post by Igor Strelkov, the so-called “defence minister” of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. It said: “We just downed an AN-26 near Torez. And here is a video confirming that a ‘bird fell’.”

Tellingly, the post was removed shortly after it became apparent that a civilian airliner had been destroyed.

The missile flare and blast pattern

Satellite imagery shows the smoke from the missile fired at MH17 rising from rebel-held territory between Torez and Snizhne, while pictures taken from the ground show the same plume rising vertically. Military experts suggest that the trajectory of the trail helps discount a launch from further away by Ukrainian government forces.

Washington said its analysis of satellite pictures shows the missile was an SA-11 missile fired from a Buk-M1 launcher in separatist territory.

The crash site

Footage has emerged which appears to show emergency workers carrying the black box flight recorders, whose whereabouts remained uncertain last night. Cranes have been seen shifting and removing wreckage. Is this is the behaviour of individuals determined to preserve a crash scene or to destroy vital evidence?