It is a photograph that could play a crucial role in proving the deadliest of deeds. Or else it could be dismissed as a fake, nothing more than crude propaganda.
At the weekend, Ukraine’s security services (SBU) released photographs and videos it said proved that Russian-made BUK-M1 surface-to-air missile systems were inside the rebel-held area shortly before Malaysian Airlines MH17 crashed to the ground.
Among the images, said to have been taken on the day of the tragedy, was one of a missile system, either parked or passing through the rebel-controlled town of Torez, barely five miles from where Boeing 777 tore into fields of wheat and sunflowers. According to Vitaliy Nayda, head of the SBU’s counterintelligence unit, the image was “evidence” of Russia’s involvement.
But on Tuesday, when The Independent visited the site where the image was taken and showed it to local people, they claimed they had seen no such missile truck and dismissed the image as hoax. “All the Ukrainian media is lying,” said one man, Andrei Sushparnov. “We have no missiles. If we did, would the Ukrainians be bombing our cities?”
The Ukrainians have not yet revealed how they got the photograph or who took it. But the image, and other similar material, has become part of a raging information war.
The Ukrainian authorities, along with the US and Britain, have used such images and material taken from social media, to try and support their claim that pro-Russian rebels most likely shot down the plane with a surface-to-air missile.
US intelligence officials told American media they believe the missile was fired somewhere in the area around the towns of Torez and Snizhne. Other images taken on the day of the incident show a BUK missile system, possibly the same one, in Snizhne. Elsewhere, members of the public have located what they claim are images that show the trail of a missile, and even track-marks on the BUK, in the Torez area.
"Pro-Russian separatist fighters have demonstrated proficiency with surface-to-air missile systems and have downed more than a dozen aircraft over the past few months, including two large transport aircraft," the US said in a statement posted on the website of its embassy in Kiev.
Yet many people living in the rebel-held areas appear to have little time for such allegations. Tuned in largely to Russian media channels, many claim the plane was shot down by the Ukrainians to blacken the name of the Donetsk People’s Republic and its fighters.
Some are ready to believe all manner of claims and rumours, many of them emanating from Russia, such as the Ukrainians shot down the plane because they believed it belonged to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I saw this picture on the internet. But there was no such vehicle parked here,” said Svetlana Eivashenko, a 50-year woman with red hair. “I wish Ukraine would leave Donetsk in peace.”
The photograph released by Ukrainian intelligence appears to have been taken from somewhere on the forecourt of the Pit Stop Market and petrol station, located close to the junction of Gagarin and 50th Anniversary of the USSR streets in central Torez. Nearby is a large statue dedicated to coal miners, for whom this area of eastern Ukraine is famous.
The staff at the petrol station said none of them had been on duty last Thursday. A woman who gave her name as Diana and who worked in a toy shop called Briefcase, said he had been at work last Thursday and had seen nothing, even when she stepped out for a cigarette break. “I did not see that, for sure,” she said.
She said the conflict between government troops and the rebel fighters, which had begun in the spring, had disrupted everyone’s lives. It was particularly difficult for children, of which she had two, a boy and a girl. “There is fear. If we go out in the morning and come home safe in the evening, then it is a good day,” she said.
The Independent had been helped to the location by a Russian-speaking American citizen journalist, Aric Toler who was able to identify it using a combination of online image searches and checking court records that referred to a hardware shop shown in the image. Mr Toler's work was posted on the crowd-funded Bellingcat investigative journalism site
"l figured out the main discernible landmark was for a store called Stroidom. I used Google searches to get an address for this store in Torez, then found dash-cam videos from a guy in Torez that showed the store," he said. "After matching the streets to coordinates on mapping services, I had the location and route of the BUK on 7/17."
Mr Toler also used an online tool that estimates the time of day that an image has been taken based on shadows. He estimated that it had been taken around noon. He estimated that a second photograph of the BUK system, said to have been taken closer to Snizhne, was captured a couple of hours later.
Mr Toler admitted there was no irrefutable proof the image was taken on July 17 as claimed by the Ukrainians. But he said an internet search revealed the picture did not appear before the 17th. "And it matches accounts in other videos and pictures along with audio intercepts," he said
The Independent spent around 90 minutes at the location in Torez, at times drawing a number of animated locals who looked at the image and shook their heads.
The only hint of a positive answer came indirectly from a woman working in the Sport betting shop. She had also been off last Thursday but her colleague, whom she contacted on the telephone, said she had "heard something heavy passing by".
The woman said her friend did not wish to speak any further and added: "There are tanks passing by here all the time."
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