Dutch investigators have said that the Malaysia Airlines passenger plane that crashed in a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine in July 2014 was brought down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile.
The report released by the Dutch Safety Board on October 13 does not specify who fired the missile or the exact location from which the missile that downed Flight MH17 was fired, but identifies a 320-square-kilometer area that was mostly controlled by Russian-backed separatists at the time.
The missile, identified as part of an antiaircraft system known as Buk, detonated less than a meter to the left of the cockpit of the Boeing 777, according to the report, killing the pilots instantly and causing the aircraft to break apart. Some of the passengers, most of whom were Dutch citizens, may have survived for a short time afterwards.
The investigation represents the most authoritative conclusions to date about the incident, which came amid intense fighting between Kyiv forces and Russian-backed separatist fighters in the eastern Ukrainian regions around Donetsk and Luhansk. A leading separatist commander initially appeared to take credit for firing a missile and downing a Ukrainian jet, but those claims on social media were later removed.
Russia has strenuously denied the fighters it has backed in eastern Ukraine were responsible or that it had supplied the missile system. Russian officials have also put forth myriad alternate theories -- many detailed in the Dutch report itself -- including that MH17 was downed by a missile fired from a Ukrainian fighter jet.
The Russian state-owned company that manufactures the Buk system, also known as SA-11, tried to preempt the report, saying Dutch investigators misidentified the precise missile type, and that the missile had been fired from a different location in eastern Ukraine.
However, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, the respected British analytical organization, called the Russian company’s report "disinformation and propaganda aimed at drawing attention away from the Dutch report."
The head of the Dutch Safety Board, Tjibbe Joustra, said Ukraine should have closed its airspace at the time, and he suggested international civil aviation authorities needed new rules to prevent civilian airlines from flying over conflict zones.
He said Malaysia Airlines should have recognized the risks, but noted 61 other airlines were flying over eastern Ukraine at the time, in the apparent belief that they were flying at high enough altitudes to avoid danger.
“Nobody gave any thought of a possible threat to civil aviation,” Joustra said, speaking at a news conference at a military base in the southern Netherlands.
MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, when it crashed in rebel-held eastern Ukraine. All 298 people aboard died.
Earlier on October 13, the Dutch Safety Board reportedly told relatives of the passengers that all those aboard the plane immediately lost consciousness when it was hit by a missile.
But the report itself suggested that some passengers may have been conscious after the missile struck, noting that one victim was found wearing an emergency oxygen mask.
The 15-month investigation included painstakingly reassembling the cockpit area of the plane from wreckage collected at the crash site. The reconstructed nose of the plane, shown to the press, was riddled with shrapnel holes.
"As a result of the warhead's detonation, thousands of small preformed metal objects were ejected with tremendous force," Joustra said. "Many of these objects were bow tie-shaped or cubic [and] several hundreds of them hit the airplane."
The Dutch report did not assign blame as to who downed the plane, something beyond the scope of its authority under rules governing international flight crash investigations. A separate Dutch-led criminal investigation is expected to publish its findings in several months.
WATCH: Dutch Safety Board Video On The MH17 Probe
Washington, which has long argued that a Russian-supplied missile was responsible for the crash, said the report was an "important milestone in the effort to hold accountable those responsible" for the disaster.
"The United States will fully support all efforts to bring to justice those responsible," said U.S. National Security Council spokesman Ned Price. "Our assessment is unchanged -- MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine."
Malaysia’s government vowed to seek the prosecution of what it called "trigger-happy criminals" who downed the plane.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the report by Dutch investigators was "an important building block" in the criminal probe of the tragedy.
He called on Russia to provide "complete cooperation" with the criminal investigation being led by Dutch prosecutors.
Тhe report "puts an end to 15 months of speculation over a number of key facts related to the crash," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said.
But the Kremlin criticized the report and investigation as "biased," with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov saying that, despite Moscow's efforts to organize an MH17 probe,"there are obvious attempts to fulfill a political order."
Just hours before the Dutch news conference, Yan Novikov, the head of Almaz-Antey -- the Russian state-owned company that manufactures the Buk missile system -- sought to debunk some of the report’s conclusions.
Novikov told reporters in Moscow that simulations conducted by his company showed both the location from which the missile was launched and the type of missile used differed from those identified by Dutch investigators.
He said his company's tests showed that the missile was launched from Zaroshchenske region, which pro-Russian separatists said was controlled by Ukrainian armed forces at the time.
The Dutch report indicated that the missile was launched near the village of Snizhne.
Novikov also said his company tests showed the plane was struck by a missile used by an older model of the Buk system, the 9M38, which he said was not in service in the Russian military.
Buk missile infographic (click to enlarge)
Dutch investigators said it was a 9M38-series missile, but did not specify whether it was a 9M38M1 or an older version.
"The only thing that we do not yet understand is why fragments of 9M38M1 are among the evidence," Novikov said.
Nick de Larrinaga, Europe Editor for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, noted that Russia has put forth differing claims, including а Russian Defense Ministry claim that Ukrainian Su-25 jet shot down the plane.
He also dismissed Russian assertions about the 9M38 or 9M38M1 missiles, saying evidence showed both were in service and in Russian military stockpiles as of July 2014.
The Almaz-Antey report "should be discounted as disinformation and propaganda aimed at drawing attention away from the Dutch report," he said.
"It is worth remembering that Russia has a long history of disinformation over its involvement in Ukraine, initially the country denied its troops had invaded Crimea -- something Russia now acknowledges was the case," de Larrinaga said.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, TASS, and Interfax