Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Vital clues may have been moved, say air crash experts

Finding out who's to blame may be as difficult as in Afghanistan and Iraq

Senior figures in the air accident investigation community yesterday warned that the chances of a proper investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 are looking increasingly doubtful, as reports emerged that Ukraine separatists were destroying evidence.

Investigators said establishing a security cordon at the crash site, outside the village of Grabovo in eastern Ukraine, was crucial if there was to be hope of discovering what, or who, brought down the airliner and claimed almost 300 lives.

"It is very worrying to see that somebody could have moved what could be critical pieces of evidence," said Phil Giles, formerly with the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, who looked into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie. "At Lockerbie, the whole investigation hinged on finding a thumbnail-sized piece of the bomb's timing device. That shows how vital securing the site is."

Images posted on social media continued to show that large parts of the downed Boeing 777 airliner, including part of the fuselage and overhead lockers, were lying unattended. Other witnesses reported spotting items of debris in corn fields as far away as 10 miles from the majority of the debris.

Reconstructed remains of Pan Am Flight 103 Reconstructed remains of Pan Am Flight 103 "The situation at the site will make the job of investigating this all the harder," Mr Giles told The IoS. "Investigators will potentially be looking for explosive residue on sections of the aircraft, or even components from any ground-to-air missile. But, as it stands, we simply don't know if some bugger with a balaclava and an assault rifle hasn't moved those.

"Watching the TV footage, it has also been really disappointing to see Western media trampling all over the evidence... potentially destroying evidence."

Dutch, American and British air accident investigators have been converging on the scene since Friday, but most are still waiting in the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

According to Mr Giles, once the investigation is able to get under way it will focus on tracking critical evidence of any explosives as well as determining the location of the aircraft's two black box flight recorders, which provide flight information as well as a recording of conversation between the pilot and co-pilot.

Read more: West gives Putin 'one last chance' to end hostilities
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West gives Putin 'one last chance' to end hostilities
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Comment: In war, it's the civilians who suffer most of all

Mr Giles said the reported removal of bodies could pose a "significant challenge" for investigators to try to "piece together the final moments of flight MH17". He added: "Obviously, bodies need to be treated with respect and in the heat moved as quickly as possible. But the corpses are evidence in themselves. They can tell us a lot about how the plane may have broken up or hit the ground.

"Often, locals will pull everything together into one pile, thinking they are helping investigators or they'll collect passports as they appear to have done in Ukraine, but this is the worst thing they can do and will contaminate the scene. The worry here is that people moving things may have more dubious motivations than helping investigate."

Tony Cable, a former air accident investigator with 32 years' experience of civilian and military crashes, said that the job "wouldn't be desperately complex if it wasn't for the politics on the round".

"It's looking increasingly likely it was taken down by a sophisticated ground-to-air missile, so you would expect to see wreckage with blast damage," said the investigator, who also worked on Lockerbie as well as the Paris Concorde crash in 2000. "And surfaces adjacent to any explosion would have chemical traces that, depending on the manufacture of the missile, should be fairly easily traceable, as many missiles have a detectable chemical signature that act almost as fingerprints."

Mr Cable added that he could not recall "a more challenging site". He compared the Ukraine crash with military investigations in Iraq and Afghanistan: "securing the site" and "protecting investigators" were the "biggest challenges". Another issue was what form the investigation would take, as the lines of authority for the growing international investigation still remain unclear.

There were growing calls yesterday for an investigation by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which was backed by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Russia's Vladimir Putin.

However, as Mr Giles and Mr Cable pointed out, there is "no precedent" or "legal method" for the ICAO to run an investigation itself under Annex 13 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation. This states that the State of Occurrence – in this case Ukraine – is officially in charge of the MH17 accident investigation.

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