MH17: How investigators were able to prove rebels shot down plane with missile from Russia

Russia and missile manufacturer Almaz-Antey refute Joint Investigation Team's findings

Lizzie Dearden
Wednesday 28 September 2016 16:36
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Evidence of possible Russian involvement in downing of MH17

Investigators have released footage showing the missile system used to down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 being transported from Russia by rebels.

International prosecutors found separatists were responsible for shooting down the Boeing 777 and killing all 298 people on board on 17 July 2014, during the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

A report by the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) said there was “no doubt” the missile that downed the plane was brought in from Russia and fired from rebel-controlled territory as militants sought to fend off attacks by the Ukrainian air force.

Investigators pinpointed the launch site atop a hill in farmland west of Pervomaiskyi, having traced the convoy carrying the Buk from the Russian border through Donetsk, Torez, Snizhne and on to the launch site in the hours before MH17 was downed.

Image of Buk-M1 launcher in the vicinity of the MH17 crash

The JIT has reconstructed the weapon’s journey using data from rebels’ mobile phones, as well as photos and videos showing it being escorted by pro-Russian rebels wearing unspecified uniforms.

In several tapped phone calls, men’s voices are heard discussing the transport of the Buk missile system from and back to Russia, while audio previously released by Ukrainian officials appears to show a panicked militant saying MH17 was shot down in the mistaken belief it was a military plane.

He tells a superior: “It was 100 per cent a passenger aircraft…there are civilian items, medicinal stuff, towels, toilet paper.”

Journalists arriving at the scene of the missile launch the following day found a scorched patch of earth measuring 30m by 30m, which could also be seen on satellite images showing caterpillar tracks nearby.

Hours after MH17 was downed, the Buk was seen being driven back towards the Russian border - missing one of its four missiles - before the convoy left Ukraine overnight. Shortly after MH17’s disappearance, a post attributed to separatist leader Igor Girkin, a Russian army veteran known as Strelkov, claimed rebels had shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane.

The swiftly-deleted post on Russian social network VKontakte was accompanied by a video of rising smoke and said: “We warned them - don’t fly in our sky.”

Much of the footage cited by the JIT had already been analysed for a report released in February by investigative citizen journalists in the Bellingcat group.

Intercepted call used as evidence of possible Russian involvement in downing of MH17

Its analysis concluded the Buk missile system used to down MH17 was transported into Ukraine by Russian soldiers with “high-level” authorisation, although it was unclear whether Russian or separatist fighters operated the weapon after it crossed the border.

An extended and uncensored version of the report was sent to JIT investigators in December, including the full names and photographs of soldiers said to be involved.

“Although it is likely that the head officials of Russia’s Ministry of Defence did not explicitly decide to send a Buk missile launcher to Ukraine, the decision to send military equipment (with or without crew) from the Air Defence Forces to Ukraine was likely made at a very high level and, therefore, the Russian Ministry of Defence bears the main responsibility for the downing of MH17,” Bellingcat’s report concluded.

“This responsibility is shared with separatist leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic and (to a lesser extent) the Luhansk People’s Republic…ultimately, responsibility for the downing of MH17 from a weapon provided and possibly operated by the Russian military lies with its two head commanders: Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu and President Vladimir Putin.”

Separatist groups have denied any involvement in the disaster, while Russian officials have continually dismissed allegations of soldiers or equipment being deployed in Ukraine.

The Russian government refuted the JIT’s findings and accused the report of being “biased and politically motivated”.

Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry in Moscow, claimed Russian officials had been prevented from playing a full role in the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team’s (JIT) work.

“To arbitrarily designate a guilty party and dream up the desired results has become the norm for our Western colleagues,” she said.

“The investigation to this day continues to ignore incontestable evidence from the Russian side despite the fact that Russia is practically the only one sending reliable information to them.”

Ms Zakharova also suggested that the Ukrainian government had been able to influence the inquiry using fabricated evidence.

In its own investigation, Russian Buk manufacturer Almaz Antey claimed the deadly missile was fired from Zaroschenskoye and that Ukrainian forces were stationed there.

“We investigated this and have been able to establish that this was not the launch location, and moreover that it was controlled by pro-Russian rebels at the time,” said Wilbert Paulissen, head of the Dutch Central Crime Investigation Department.

The JIT said it had only received partial responses to its requests for information from Russian authorities and had not yet been sent primary radar data cited by officials at the Kremlin.

Comprising prosecutors from the countries with the most passengers on board the flight – the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia and Belgium – and Ukraine, the JIT previously said it would “ensure the independence of the investigation”.

The body has primary responsibility for establishing the case for prosecutions after the UN Security Council failed to adopt a resolution that would have established an international tribunal for prosecuting those responsible for downing MH17 at a meeting in July 2015.

When questioned by journalists, members of the JIT would not specifically name the militia or faction responsible for firing the missile but said they were investigating around 100 people linked to the downing of MH17 or the transport of the Buk missile.

A spokesperson said officials are also looking at the chain of command that led to the disaster, adding: “Who gave the order to bring the BUK-TELAR into Ukraine and who gave the order to shoot down flight MH17? Did the crew decide for themselves or did they execute a command from their superiors?”

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