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Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash: Everything we know about the gunning down of a passenger plane

The Boeing 777 with 298 people on board crashed in eastern Ukraine

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Thursday 17 November 2022 16:04 GMT
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Four suspects named and charged in MH17 plane crash

Eight years on from the tragic downing of a Malaysia Airlines commercial flight, here’s everything we know.

What do we know?

On 17 July 2014, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur under the flight number MH17 at an altitude of 33,000 feet.

It was one of 160 flights that crossed the airspace of eastern Ukraine that day. MH17 was shot down and crashed near the Ukrainian village of Hrabove. All 298 passengers and crew on board died.

An exclusion zone prevailed at 32,000 feet because of the conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels.

Five countries – the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine – formed the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) into the tragedy.

On 24 May 2018 the JIT announced that the Buk missile installation that brought down the flight belonged to the Russian army.

The missile, which can reach a height of 80,000 feet, was fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine – at a target that may mistakenly have been assumed to be a Ukrainian military aircraft.

Who was responsible?

A murder trial was held by the Hague District Court, sitting in a high-security courtroom at Schiphol Airport.

Dutch prosecutors said the missile launcher came from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, a unit of the Russian armed forces based in the Russian city of Kursk and was driven back there after MH17 was shot down.

Three men, none of whom were in court, were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

The most senior was Igor Girkin, a 51-year-old former colonel in the Russian intelligence service, FSB, also known as “Strelkov”. At the time of the downing, he was defence minister and commander of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic - the region where the plane was shot down. Girkin is reportedly involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Also convicted were Girkin’s subordinates, a Russian named Sergey Dubinskiy, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader.

While they may not have fired the missile, they were held responsible for it being in position.

What did the investigators find?

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

The final report by the Dutch Safety Board was released in October 2015.

Circumstantial evidence and sightings on the ground overwhelmingly point to a Russian Buk system arriving in the vicinity the day MH17 was brought down.

They concluded that the warhead had been travelling at over 1,500mph when it exploded inches in front of 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 on board 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.”

It concludes that the two pilots and the purser, who were sitting in the cockpit, died instantly when the warhead exploded.

But it does not rule out the possibility that some occupants of the aircraft were conscious for some or all of the time it took for the aircraft to hit the ground, up to 90 seconds after the missile exploded.

The impact itself could have rendered many unconscious, with factors such as extreme cold and 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 of the occupants seated in the cabin suffered multiple fractures consistent with the in-flight disintegration of the aeroplane and ground impact.”

What other explanations for the loss of MH17 have been proposed?

Many alternative theories, from air-to-air missiles to a meteor collision, continue to be advanced – as they were with the other Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that was lost in 2014, flight MH370.

One account is that the passenger aircraft was shot down by one or more Ukrainian fighter jets. An eye-witness, Natasha Voronina, said that she saw two aircraft fly in different directions.

The Dutch Safety Board concluded that this could be explained because front part of the plane was blown away from the rest of the jet by the force of the blast. It said no other aircraft were shown on radar screens.

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A satellite photograph shown on Russian television claiming to show a jet closing in on the Malaysia Airlines aircraft has been discredited as a fake.

Another theory claims that the missile was fired by the Ukrainian army. But no credible evidence has been presented to back that up.

An inflight fire has been suggested, because of the evidence of burns on the bodies of some of the victims and fire damage to wreckage. But investigators concluded: “There was no inflight fire before the inflight break-up.

“Fires erupted at two wreckage sites after the crash.”

Inflight mechanical failure has also been considered, but again the final report concludes: “There were no known technical malfunctions that could affect the safety of the flight.”

A meteor has been offered as alternative explanation. But the final report said no ultrasonic sound waves which accompany the descent of a meteor had been recorded. It also notes that the chances of a meteor striking an aircraft have been calculated to be at most one case in 59,000 years.

Nor could a falling satellite have caused the crash: in the week of the crash, no space debris was recorded as re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.

The Dutch Safety Board excludes the possibility of any other cause, saying: “No other scenario can explain this combination of factors.”

Why was the aircraft in an area where there was an armed conflict?

That is exactly the question asked by the investigators. 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.

Ukraine then raised the minimum “safe” altitude to 32,000 feet – one thousand feet below the level of MH17. 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 on the busy air routes between Europe and South East Asia it meant longer journeys and higher fuel consumption.

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 in the area.

“According to the Ukrainian authorities, weapons systems were being used that could reach civil aeroplanes at cruising altitude.” says the report.

What is Moscow’s view?

Russia has always denied any involvement in the shooting down of MH17. When the charges were announced, the Kremlin reiterated that it had no involvement in the downing of the Malaysian airliner and accused the JIT investigation of being “biased and politically motivated”.

Tass, the official Russian news agency, says: “Russian officials have repeatedly expressed distrust towards the JIT’s conclusions, which carried out a criminal investigation of the MH17 case and pointed to the groundlessness of the arguments presented by the prosecution and the reluctance to use Moscow’s conclusions in conducting the investigation.”

It is thought very unlikely that the three men found guilty of the attack will ever be seen outside Russia again.

What do the investigators recommend for future operations?

Airlines should publish clear information to potential passengers about flight routes over conflict zones, and provide public accountability about their choices at least annually.

Civil aviation authorities should make it mandatory for airlines to carry out their own risk assessment of countries that they overfly. They wamust inform airlines and foreign governments “as quickly as possible in the event of an armed conflict with possible risks for civil aviation.”

Governments must share “relevant information about threats within a foreign airspace” with each other and with airlines.

Incentives – possibly financial – should be offered to nations that close airspace because of the risk from conflicts taking place on their territory.

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