TIME Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

Investigators Examine Shrapnel-Like Holes in MH17 Debris

A part of the fuselage of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is pictured in a field near the village of Grabove, in the Donetsk region, on July 23, 2014.
A part of the fuselage of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 is pictured in a field near the village of Grabove, in the Donetsk region, on July 23, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

Possible evidence of missile impact discovered, as well as more human remains, while crash site still remains inadequately secured

Investigators have found shrapnel-like holes in pieces of the fuselage belonging to the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that crashed in eastern Ukraine last Thursday, allegedly after being struck by a missile.

Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), described the punctures as “almost machine gun-like holes,” and said that Malaysian aviation-security officials had inspected the damage before leaving the site on Thursday.

A second plane carrying bodies from the ill-fated jetliner arrived Thursday in the Netherlands. With 194 of the 298 people on board being Dutch, the Netherlands was the country that lost the most citizens in the crash. Confusion remains over how many bodies have actually been recovered, though. Russian-backed separatists in control over the crash site claim to have handed over 282 bodies, plus more than 80 body parts. However, Dutch officials estimate that the figure handed over could be lower. Meanwhile, monitors in Ukraine keep finding human remains in the area.

There’s still concern that the 12 km-long area over which plane debris has been scattered hasn’t been adequately secured. Farmers are operating agricultural equipment in fields that could contain further evidence or even human remains. Serhiy Bochkovsky, the head of State Service of Emergencies Ukraine, said the separatists were preventing his team from doing their job.

“They took away our tents, the ones which were at our base camp,” Bochkovsky told a news conference. “We were allowed only our equipment and machinery and we were chased away at gunpoint.”

The Netherlands has officially taken charge of the investigation. “Now that … Ukraine has transferred legal responsibility to the Netherlands, we feel we’ll get more progress from the separatists,” Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in Kiev. With 38 passengers, Australians comprised the third-largest nationality on the flight after the Netherlands and Malaysia. Both the Netherlands and Australia are sending additional teams to help with the investigation in Ukraine.

TIME Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

Russia Will Comply With MH17 Probe Led by Dutch

A pro-Russian separatist seen at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Grabovo, July 23, 2014.
A pro-Russian separatist seen at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Grabovo, July 23, 2014. Zurab Dzhavakhadze—Itar-Tass/Corbis

Opposes letting Ukraine lead the investigation

Russia’s ambassador to Malaysia told Reuters Wednesday that the country will cooperate with an investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that will be led by the Dutch.

Under the rules of the United Nations’ civil aviation body, the ICAO, the country where the crash occurred typically heads up the probe. But Russia has opposed a Ukrainian-led investigation, saying the rebels who control the site do not trust the central government. But it is satisfied with a probe led by the Netherlands.

“We want an international investigation led by ICAO. Any country part of ICAO may take part [sic]. Netherlands has the right to lead this,” Liudmila Vorobyeva, the ambassador to Malaysia, told Reuters.

MA17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur one week ago, killing 298 people including 193 Dutch citizens. Western officials and Ukraine believe Russian-backed rebels may be responsible, having been given the technology to bring down an airliner by Russia — the Kremlin, however, has laid blame on Kiev.

A separatist commander in Ukraine earlier admitted that the rebels did possess the surface-to-air BUK missile system that are suspected of downing the airliner, even as other rebels and the Russians deny that the separatists have the technology.

“I don’t know the reason why he gave such a statement,” Vorobyeva, the ambassador, told Reuters. “It was clearly stated by our ministry of defense that we never provided any BUK air defense systems to the so-called pro-Russian rebels. We are pretty sure they don’t have this kind of system.”

[Reuters]

TIME Flight MH17

Ukraine Says 2 Military Jets Shot Down Over East

As UK investigators began analysis of MH17 black boxes, and the bodies of Dutch victims were flown home

Ukraine said that two of its fighter jets were shot down Wednesday over eastern Ukraine, the Associated Press reports, less than a week after a passenger jet was downed in the same region. The news came as the two black boxes from the downed MH17 jet arrived in Britain and 40 of the recovered 200 bodies were being flown to the Netherlands.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said in a statement Wednesday that two of its military fighter jets were downed over eastern Ukraine. The two jets, both Sukhoi-25 planes, were shot down at 1:30pm local time over the Savur Mogila area. It is not yet known whether those on board have survived. A spokesperson for the ministry said the planes could have been carrying up to two people each.

Whilst the Ukrainian government tries to ascertain what has happened, the U.K. Air Accidents Investigation Branch has begun to investigate the two flight recorders from flight MH17, the BBC reports, which were handed over to Malaysian experts by Ukrainian rebels late Monday.

Aviation experts from the organization will try to download data from the black boxes in accordance with a request from Dutch authorities heading up the investigation. The data should be downloaded within the next two days and will then be sent to the Dutch investigators. It is hoped that the flight recorders will be able to confirm whether a missile hit flight MH17.

The black boxes’ arrival comes as the first 40 bodies of the 298 victims were being flown to Eindhoven in the Netherlands. It is expected that they will arrive at 4pm local time.

They will be met by members of the Dutch royal family and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte as part of a national day of mourning for the deceased. 193 of the 298 passengers onboard flight MH17 were Dutch nationals.

All 200 of the recovered bodies arrived in Kharkiv, Ukraine in a refrigerated train carriage Tuesday, following repeated international demands for their safe return.

Following a solemn ceremony attended by ambassadors, soldiers and officials, 40 coffins were loaded onto two military planes bound directly for Eindhoven. They will then be taken to barracks south of Hilversum for identification. Rutte has warned, however, that this could take months.

Flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17. All 298 people on board were killed. Washington said Wednesday that they had clear evidence the plane was downed by an SA-11 missile “fired from eastern Ukraine under conditions the Russians helped create.”

[BBC]

TIME Terrorism

MH17 Ukrainian Crash: Dusting for Fingerprints

The U.S. embassy in Ukraine posted this graphic Tuesday, suggesting how pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. U.S. government

Both sides believe a missile downed the jet, but determining whose missile will be tougher

Missiles don’t shoot down airliners. People do. But determining whose finger pushed the button that sent a guided rocket into MH17 is a lot tougher than determining that it was a missile that brought the Boeing 777 down, killing all 298 aboard.

While the smoke has cleared from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and its victims begun their long journey home, much smoke—and some mirrors—remain for those seeking to determine culpability. U.S. officials said Tuesday that their latest intelligence suggests that pro-Russian separatists acted alone, without Moscow’s help.

But that’s a distinction without a difference. The Russian government has fanned and fueled pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine for months. There’s little chance the rebels would have been able to shoot down the jet—if indeed that is what happened—without Moscow’s support. Implicit in that latest assessment is Washington’s eagerness to avoid pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin into a corner. Washington is trying to entice him into abandoning his support for the separatists.

Amid the ferocious propaganda battle, powered by dueling briefings and instant analysis on social media, it’s important to remember both sides have been caught fudging before.

Moscow took nearly a week before finally acknowledging it shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983, killing all 269 on board. The U.S. denied early Soviet reports that Moscow had shot down a U-2 spy plane in 1960—until it produced Francis Gary Powers a week after his plane was shot down (and the weapons of mass destruction used to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq—weapons that remain MIA—are often cited when questioning the trustworthiness of U.S. intelligence claims).

It has been nearly a week since the plane crashed. The pair of black boxes, at last in the hands of Malaysian authorities, are unlikely to offer many clues. The crew aboard the plane likely had no knowledge they were under attack, so there’s probably no conversation on the cockpit voice recorder detailing what happened. It’s also likely that the flight data recorder will show everything aboard the plane was normal—until it shut down as the plane disintegrated.

There is growing evidence that some kind of missile warhead peppered the plane with shrapnel. An anti-aircraft missile’s warhead generally shatters as it comes within 100 yards or so of its target, flinging hundreds of high-velocity shards of shrapnel into it. They cripple the plane’s flaps and engines, severe fuel lines and can lead to its near-instantaneous destruction.

The shrapnel plays into both competing narratives. The Russians have suggested, without offering proof, that a Ukrainian Su-25 may have fired the missile that brought the plane down. The U.S., showing how much remains unknown, didn’t dismiss the Russian claim. “I haven’t seen any information that indicates a Ukrainian jet,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday. “We’re still looking into it, obviously. The president of Ukraine has said there was not, but again, we like to independently verify things.”

Russian officials also indicated that their own intelligence shows that Ukrainian missile systems were in the area and could have downed MH17. Moscow has argued that photographs of purported Russian missile systems inside Ukraine, and taped phone calls implicating Ukrainian rebels and their Russian allies in the shootdown, have been doctored, or are from different times and different places than the shootdown and its aftermath July 17.

The rest of the world—the U.S., Europe and Ukraine—believes that an SA-11 surface-to-air missile—fired either by pro-Russian separatists or Russian troops themselves, from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine—is responsible. Chemical testing of any explosive residue left on the remnants of the plane—or the missile—might pinpoint the kind of missile involved.

Smarting under increasing global pressure, Russian generals went on the offensive at a briefing Monday where they claimed a Ukrainian fighter jet flew within two miles of MH17 despite Kiev’s contention that no other aircraft were close by. And if an SA-11 Buk missile downed the jet, Lieutenant-General Andrei Kartopolov said, it didn’t come from Russia. Moscow hasn’t given pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists missiles, he added, “or any other kinds of weapons or military hardware” (that claim set off howls of laughter from inside U.S. intelligence and military circles).

“According to the U.S. declarations, they have satellite images that confirm the missile was launched by the rebels. But nobody has seen these images,” Kartopolov said. “If the American side has pictures from this satellite, then they should show the international community.”

If Monday’s Russian briefing—complete with radar images flashing across giant screens—was state of the art, Tuesday’s U.S. posting of a graphic designed to show how the shootdown happened was crude. The American embassy in Ukraine posted the sketch, which quickly turned up on cable television. But it listed no sources for what it supposedly showed, and was widely ridiculed online for its lack of provenance and authority.

“It’s commercial imagery that’s available commercially,” the State Department’s Harf said Tuesday. “Flight paths are obviously publicly available information.” But it’s the alleged trajectory of the missile that’s key. Who added that? “I don’t think anyone here did,” Harf said. “I think this is just something we’ve been using internally inside the broader USG [U.S. government] who’s been talking about this.”

Ukraine and Russia were involved in a similar case more than a decade ago. In 2001, Kiev belatedly acknowledged that its military mistakenly shot down a Siberia Airlines plane over the Black Sea, killing all 78 aboard.

Coming less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, Russians initially suspected Chechen rebels for the shootdown. Back when Moscow and Kiev had warmer relations, the Russians declared that U.S. intelligence suggesting a wayward Ukrainian missile was to blame was “unworthy of attention.”

Putin, no less, denied that the plane could have been downed by a Ukrainian missile. “The weapons used in those exercises had such characteristics that make it impossible for them to reach the air corridor through which the plane was moving,” he said shortly after the shootdown, while in his first of three terms as Russian president. So were terrorists responsible? “The final judgment of that and the cause of the tragedy,” he said, “can only be made by the experts after very careful study.”

Ultimately, such study concluded that a Russian-built Ukrainian S-200 flew past its target drone after a second missile destroyed it. But instead of self-destructing, the S-200 locked on to the civilian airliner 150 miles away and blew it out of the sky.

TIME Ukraine

Who Are the Rebels Controlling Flight MH17′s Crash Site?

Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014.
Armed pro-Russian separatists stand guard in front of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

The men behind the "Donetsk People's Republic" and other separatist groups

On Monday the two black boxes from flight MH17 were finally handed over to Malaysian experts who had been petitioning for their safe recovery. The black boxes, however, weren’t returned by the Ukrainian government, but by pro-Russian separatists from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

The handover, attended by international press, did not seem bound by diplomatic protocols. Hulking rebels dressed in camouflage loomed over the diminutive leader of the Malaysian delegation as he addressed the media.

Next to him stood their leader, Alexander Borodai, the self-styled Prime Minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, who had negotiated the black boxes’ return with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. During the talks, Borodai had also agreed to transport the bodies of the victims to Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, to be flown out to the Netherlands for identification. He later kept his word.

Self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist "Donetsk People's Republic" Alexander Borodai gives a press conference in Donetsk, on July 19, 2014.
Self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” Alexander Borodai gives a press conference in Donetsk, July 19, 2014. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

But what authority did Borodai have to negotiate the terms of the agreement with a world leader? Little more than the authority of the gun. In April, a gang led by Borodai and another rebel, Igor Girkin, declared the eastern province of Donetsk a republic. Girkin, who goes by the moniker “Strelkov” meaning shooter, is Borodai’s right hand man, running the armed forces within the so-called “Republic.” Negotiations between the two prime ministers—legitimate or otherwise—may have been fraught given that Girkin reportedly boasted about shooting down the plane.

Despite their grand claim to have founded a republic, Andrew Weiss, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment, told TIME Borodai and Girkin only control shifting parts of the region, which is also populated by other separatist groups numbering about 5,000 rebels.

The separatists are far from a unified force, says James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House. “They are a series of disparate and only vaguely interconnected groups,” he says. “They’re very disorganized with no real structure or headquarters. Most of the rebels are poorly trained, ill-educated and ignorant of geopolitics.”

Borodai and Girkin however, aren’t everyday thugs like some of their rebel brethren. The pair are both Russian nationals with suspected ties to the Kremlin and experience in separatist conflicts.

Borodai, 41, is rumored to be particularly close to Moscow. In the early 1990s he wrote regularly for the far-right newspaper Zavtra and in 2011 founded the nationalist television channel Den-TV. He confirmed earlier this year that he worked as an adviser to the separatist Prime Minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov. Russia annexed Crimea in March.

Borodai claims he was invited to eastern Ukraine by Girkin, a former Russian security-service officer. Girkin, meanwhile, has alleged he was asked to head the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, though refuses to say by whom. Like Borodai, he also advised separatists in Crimea.

The Russian pair’s group may have staked their claim to the crash site—Iryna Gudyma, a spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who is currently in the area told TIME “we’ve only encountered armed rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic”—but other rebels are on the scene.

The Wall Street Journal has claimed Cossacks led by commander Nikolai Kozitsin control part of the area where MH17 fell. Unlike Borodai and Girkin, Kozitsin is a Ukrainian who was born in Donetsk. Like them, he has been involved in separatist conflicts in Transnistria and Georgia.

On July 18, the day after the crash, Ukrainian authorities released a transcript of a conversation in which a man they identified as Kozitsin says of MH17: “they shouldn’t be flying. There’s a war going on.” Another transcript implicates Igor Bezler, known to his men as “Bes”, or “devil.” During a call Bezler reportedly told a Russian intelligence officer his men shot down a plane. Bezler’s group currently controls the town of Horlivka in Donetsk province.

But none of the rebel leaders have any overarching authority. “The people who are leaders in east Ukraine are not playing leading roles,” says Sam Greene, director of King’s College London’s Russian Institute. “They hold the de facto power in that part of the Ukraine but that’s all. They don’t have long established electoral legitimacy.” Borodai was only allowed to speak to the Malaysian Prime Minister because his men currently control the area.

Any fleeting power the groups have is considerably bolstered by Russia’s supply of money and weapons into the region, but that may soon cease. “Moscow’s commitment to supporting the rebels is waning, particularly after MH17,” notes Greene. “The costs are becoming too high politically both in terms of sanctions and the damage to Putin’s international reputation.”

And without Russian support, the future of the Donetsk People’s Republic looks decidedly shaky.

TIME russia

Dutch Minister Says E.U. Is Imposing New Sanctions on Officials Over Russia’s Actions in Ukraine

(BRUSSELS) — Dutch minister says EU is imposing new sanctions on officials over Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

TIME Flight MH17

After MH17, Challenges Ahead for the International Community in Ukraine

In the video above, TIME asked an international affairs expert to discuss the diplomatic challenges faced by the international community

+ READ ARTICLE

In the wake of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was shot down last week, diplomatic pressure for Russia and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine continues to mount.

Malaysian Prime Minster Najib Razak recently announced an agreement with the leader of a pro-Russian separatist group to return bodies, hand over black boxes, and let independent international investigators access the crash site.

Here, international affairs expert Austin Long explains what the options are for the international community, as it seeks justice for victims.

TIME Malaysia

See the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 Crash Site in Ukraine From Space

Malaysia Airlines flight 17 crash site in Ukraine, July 20, 2014.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site in eastern Ukraine, July 20, 2014. DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

Satellite image released by DigitalGlobe shows a main impact site on July 20

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was traveling some 33,000 feet above eastern Ukraine on July 17 when it was struck by a surface-to-air missile believed to have been fired by Russia-backed separatists, resulting in the deaths of 283 passengers and 15 crew members from 12 nations. (Read about the lives lost in the tragedy.)

DigitalGlobe released this image on July 21, one day after its QuickBird satellite captured it. Debris from the plane, which had been traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was scattered over several square miles near the area of Grabovo. (For a closer look, see Jérôme Sessini’s photographs from immediately after the crash.)

President Barack Obama accused the separatists on Monday of removing evidence from the impact site following reports that bodies were not being properly released and international investigators were being blocked from the scene.

TIME Malaysia

Live: Malaysian PM Speaks on MH17

Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose step-grandmother was on the plane that came down in eastern Ukraine, delivers a statement

TIME Malaysia

Malaysians Want the Bodies of Their MH17 Dead Back Before the Ramadan Fast Ends

Zulrusdi bin Haji Mohamad Hol dressed for iftar dinner with other relatives of MH17 victims at Marriott Hotel in Putrajaya, Malaysia, on July 20, 2014. Zulrusdi's cousin was returning after a three-year work stint in Kazakhstan with his wife and four children on July 17, when the Malaysia Airlines plane they were traveling with was shot down midair over eastern Ukraine. Per Liljas

For relatives gathered at a hotel south of Kuala Lumpur, it's a heart-breaking waiting game

Update: This story was updated at 22:45 ET on July 22 to include an official quote on the correct handling of dead bodies in Islam.

Dusk settles and Malaysia comes together to break the daily fasting of Ramadan. Hundreds of people in elegant attire mill about the lavish iftar buffet at Marriott Hotel in Putrajaya, 25 km south of Kuala Lumpur. Two floors down, however, the mood is less festive. There, MH17 relatives gather around tables in one of the conference rooms and yearn for a completely different religious observance.

“We need to get the bodies home to expedite the burials,” says Zulrusdi bin Haji Mohamad Hol, whose cousin was on the plane together with his whole family. “Otherwise, how will our family members get peace?”

Four days after Malaysia Airlines flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian rebels who control the area have piled almost 200 corpses into refrigerated boxcars and used cranes to move chunks of the downed aircraft. International investigators still have limited access to the crash site, and Western governments have condemned the separatists for tampering with the scene.

A rebel leader said Sunday that they will hand over the bodies to the International Civil Aviation Organization, yet that depends on an as yet nonexistent cooperation between rebels, the Ukraine government and international investigators. A government-appointed counselor at the Marriott says he has to shield relatives from media coverage from Ukraine. Zulrusdi has caught images of remains putrefying on the fields, and rebels carrying away bodies in plastic bags. International media has carried reports of victims’ luggage and personal belongings being rummaged through and possibly looted.

“I’m very angry,” Zulrusdi says. “They’re inhumane, they don’t understand. First they murder our relatives then they keep the corpses with them.”

Pressure is mounting on Russia to take a firmer role in securing the investigation and recovery of bodies. The U.S. has been particularly harsh in their allusions to Russian culpability. On Sunday, the embassy in Kiev stated that “MH17 was likely downed by a SA-11 surface-to-air missile from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine,” that Russia had sent “a convoy of military equipment” to the separatists over the weekend of July 12-13, and that Moscow had trained the rebels in the use of air defense systems.

However, officials in Malaysia have chosen a more cautious tone.

“Culpability is only the third priority of the Malaysian government,” says Bridget Welsh, senior research associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University. “It would be counterproductive for their goal of bringing back the bodies to take a harder position on Russia now.”

James Chin, professor of political science at Monash University, says that Prime Minister Najib Razak has put himself in a bind by promising to recover the bodies from MH17 before next week, when the fasting period of Ramadan ends.

“It will be almost impossible to do this, and it will show how powerless Malaysia is in a situation like this, involving big players like the U.S. and Russia,” he says.

A Malaysian team is currently in Ukraine to take care of the Muslim bodies, equipped with kafan, the ritual cloth that remains should be wrapped in.

“The way the bodies were handled by the separatist has not only made us angry but has saddened us,” Othman Mustapah, director general of the Department of Islamic Development, tells TIME. “Islam places great emphasis on respecting the dead body. Not only must burial rites be managed properly, with care and in a civilized manner, the bodies must be washed, wrapped in kafan and buried as soon as possible.”

Dr Mohammad Asri Zainul Abidin, former mufti of Perlis province, adds: “If you cannot find the body, there is a special prayer that can be read. As for the relatives of MH370, it’s been up to them to decide when to do that.”

The next-of-kin at the Marriott Hotel continue to fast, join for iftar in the evening and pray that the remains of their relatives will soon be retrieved. Zulrusdi knows that in this process, his government only has limited power.

“It’s like the Malaysian saying, when the elephants fight, the little animals get trampled underfoot.”

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