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Little evidence

July 24, 2014

As mourning continues for the 298 people killed in the Malaysia Airlines crash in Ukraine, few hard facts about the disaster's causes are available. DW reviews the past week's mix of sketchy details and speculation.

A pro-Russian separatist shows members of the media a black box belonging to Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, before its handover to Malaysian representatives (Photo: REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev)
Image: Reuters

The July 17 incident saw Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash in eastern Ukraine, the area controlled by pro-Russian separatist forces. The plane had been en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, cruising at an altitude of about 10,000 meters (33,000 feet). All 298 people on board - including 193 Dutch citizens and 28 Australian nationals - were killed.

Very soon after the news spread, Ukraine accused pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine of having shot down the plane, while the rebels blamed Ukrainian forces. Russia refuted claims by Ukraine and Western governments that the rebels in eastern Ukraine possessed a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile.

Suspicion also arose that the aircraft may have been shot down by accident. Igor Strelkov, a pro-Russian rebel leader, had apparently earlier boasted of having brought down a Ukrainian cargo plane in the same area.

West points finger at Russia

On Tuesday (22.07.20143), senior US intelligence officials said that Russia was responsible for "creating the conditions" that led to the crash, but offered no evidence of direct Russian government involvement. The officials said the plane was likely shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. They cited intercepts, satellite photos and social media postings by separatists, some of which have been authenticated by US experts.

Russia on Thursday rejected the accusations. Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said in a statement that if US officials had proof that the plane was shot down by a missile launched from the rebel-held territory, "how come it has not been made public?"

Missile blast likely

Recently published photographs show a piece of fuselage from the Malaysia Airlines plane peppered with "a fairly dense but also widespread shrapnel pattern" typical for a blast from an SA-11 surface-to-air missile, said defense analyst Justin Bronk, a military science analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

An armed pro-Russian separatist gestures to reporters at the MH17 crash site (Photo: REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev)
Separatists in eastern Ukraine deny any responsibility for the disasterImage: Reuters

"The shrapnel damage on the airframe parts that's been seen so far is consistent with what you would expect to see from an SA-11 warhead exploding in close proximity," Bronk told AFP. "But to get a conclusive answer, you would have to take the aircraft away and completely reconstruct it as best as you could."

Black boxes could hold some answers

Also on Tuesday, a senior leader of the pro-Russian separatists handed in the two black boxes from flight to Malaysian experts. The Dutch Safety Board (OVV), which is leading an international inquiry into the downing of MH17, said on Wednesday it had found no evidence that the jet's "black box" voice recorder had been tampered with.

The boxes - which are actually orange - were handed over by the OVV to the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) in Farnborough, UK, for examination. On Wednesday, AAIB experts downloaded "valid data" from the first black box, the cockpit voice recorder, which is expected to give them hours of the pilots' conversations. Investigators have now started examining the second black box, the flight data recorder.

The OVV is coordinating investigation teams from eight different countries, including Russia.

ew/sad (AP, AFP)