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MH17: German government failed to warn airlines

The day MH17 was shot down, German passenger planes were still flying over eastern Ukraine. There is evidence the Berlin government failed to pass on warnings of dramatic security threats to airlines.

Investigative journalists from public broadcasters WDR and NDR as well as the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" found that the German government had conclusive evidence on threats to civil aviation in Ukraine, which it failed to pass on to German airlines. This is according to information in confidential reports from the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 with 298 people on board crashed on July 17, 2014, in an embattled region of eastern Ukraine - probably after it had been hit by a surface-to-air missile. The Ukrainian government and Western countries suspect the plane was shot down by pro-Russian separatists using a Russian rocket launcher. The Russian government has suggested the Ukrainian air force was responsible. As most of the victims were from the Netherlands, the authorities there are heading the investigation, which has not been concluded.

A different dimension

Until now it was unclear how much the German government knew about the security situation in the embattled region. In a report circulated July 15, 2014, two days before the tragedy, the Foreign Ministry wrote that the situation on the ground was cause for "grave concern." The reason given in the document - marked "for internal use only" - was the recent downing of an Antonov military cargo plane flying at an altitude of 6,000 meters (19,600 feet). This, the Foreign Ministry memo said, lent "a new quality" to the airspace security situation over Ukraine.

Military experts see the downing of a plane from that height as a clear indication that targets at a much higher altitude can also be hit - which means that passenger planes were at risk. The investigative journalists found that in its daily reports to the government, the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, had included warnings that the airspace over Ukraine was not safe.

Map Route MH17 across Europe

Lufthansa was also flying along the route taken by MH17

Lufthansa: No information

It is common practice for authorities to promptly pass on warnings about any significant change in the security situation. The transport ministry then issues so-called warning communication to the airlines. This, however, was done only after MH17 had been shot down.

"It is a fact that before July 17 we had no information from the German authorities," read a statement by German carrier Lufthansa. Airlines put together a daily "risk map" based on the information from several security sources.

According to a Lufthansa employee, who wished to stay anonymous, any warning issued by the federal government would carry special significance for the airlines when they put together their daily risk-assessment. "If the government had warned our company of a 'new quality' in risk, then Lufthansa would surely not have flown over eastern Ukraine anymore," he said.

Pure luck

Indeed, a Lufthansa plane took the same route just 20 minutes prior to MH17. It was a pure coincidence that it was not hit. On the day of the tragedy no fewer than three Lufthansa planes crossed over the area in question. Other German carriers had changed their route earlier, as a precautionary measure.

Stephan Hobe, head of the Institute for Aviation Law at Cologne University, voiced harsh criticism of the government's lack of action.

"I believe that when you have so many facts that show such an obvious security threat, the government had an obligation to get the airlines to change their routes - even to force them to do so, if need be," he said.

The Foreign Ministry has so far refused to comment. The Transport Ministry issued a written response reading:

"Prior to the crash of MH17, the German government had no indication of a worsening of the security situation for civil aviation in Ukraine," it wrote.

In internal memos the government points to the BND intelligence reports, which suggest that the military aircraft in eastern Ukraine had been downed by missiles launched from shoulder-held devices.

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