MH17 downing anniversary: Two years of accusations & few facts

Two years ago, a plane with 298 people on board departed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Halfway into the flight, it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile over the frontline between Ukrainian government loyalists and rebels in the east of the country.

It took just hours for the Western media to blame Russia for the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 shoot-down. Two years on, the proof implicating Moscow that some governments claim to have has not been made public, and an international criminal investigation into the incident has yet to produce a report.

Incident

Some facts remain undisputed in the case, which has become the most politically-loaded who-done-it of the decade. Flight MH17 was taken down over Ukraine on July 17, 2014. Most of the victims were Dutch, with Malaysians, Australians, Indonesians and British making up the other major groups.

The plane was directed by Ukrainian air traffic to fly over the zone of armed conflict, where, since April, Ukrainian government forces had been battling rebels opposing a coup-imposed government in Kiev. By that time, Kiev had lost at least 16 military aircraft in the crackdown, including two that went down just days earlier. Nonetheless, the airspace had not been closed to civilian flights. MH17 was one of dozens of civilian airliners that flew the route on the presumption that no antiaircraft weapons in the area could hit targets at their cruise altitudes.

A surface-to-air missile fired by a Buk M-1 launcher climbed to an altitude of 10 kilometers at which the Boeing plane was flying and detonated next to the cockpit, sending hundreds of fragments into the air and shredding through the aircraft. The plane broke up in the air and fell to the ground, scattering debris across a large area controlled by the rebels.

Elmar Giemulla, an aviation lawyer and leading expert on air and traffic law, who is representing three families of German passengers that were on flight MH17, told RT that, legally, the Ukrainian government should have closed its airspace under international law if it could not guarantee the safety of flights.

There were about 700 civilian flights through the Ukrainian airspace per day,” each carrying 100-150 persons, estimated Giemulla, a professor at the Berlin University of Technology’s Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Thus, “definitely, thousands of people have been jeopardized as a consequence of the decision of the Ukrainian government not to close its airspace.”

Reports

So far, the biggest public report to come out on the downing of MH17 was released by the Dutch Safety Board in October of last year. It focused on the technical details connected with the incident and their implications for flying over conflict zones, but avoided assigning blame to any party.

One part of the report has been challenged, however. Almaz-Antey, the Russian company that produces Buk systems, said the board misinterpreted the data that it had contributed for the report when estimating the location of the launch site. The report marked an area of about 320 square kilometers from which the missile could have been fired.

Almaz-Antey produced its own report, marking a 4-kilometer by 6-kilometer zone as the area the missile had probably been launched from. The two calculated zones are located some 10 kilometers apart and had been allegedly controlled by the rebels and Kiev, respectively, on the day of the incident. The Russian company later questioned the warhead the board identified as responsible for the shoot-down, saying an older variant was likely used.

Work on a more conclusive report is currently underway, as the international Joint Investigation Team (JIT) aims to produce court-admissible evidence that could bring the perpetrators to justice. No deadline has been set for the inquiry and the body is keeping the details secret, citing the need not to spook off the culprits. Preliminary results may be released later this year.

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