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Absent International Investigators, Western Journalists Build Case That Separatists Shot Down MH17

A journalist takes photographs at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Hrabovo, in the Donetsk region, on July 18, one day after the crash, which killed all 298 people aboard.
A journalist takes photographs at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Hrabovo, in the Donetsk region, on July 18, one day after the crash, which killed all 298 people aboard.

Russian officials and state-run media have widely panned a U.S. intelligence assessment of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash that relied heavily on "social media reports."

But 10 days after MH17 was blown out of the sky, killing all 298 passengers and crew members on board -- and with international investigators still struggling to gain access to the disaster site in eastern Ukraine -- the combined reporting of foreign correspondents appears to corroborate social media and intelligence accounts that link the crash to a Buk missile launcher fired by pro-Russian separatists.

Here is the evidence gathered by reporters in eastern Ukraine:

Associated Press journalists saw a Buk missile launcher near the scene of the crash three hours before the plane went down

"It was hard to miss the bulky missile system, also known as a Buk M-1. It left deep tread marks in the asphalt as it rumbled by in a small convoy. The vehicles stopped in front of journalists from The Associated Press. A man wearing unfamiliar fatigues, speaking with a distinctive Russian accent, checked to make sure they weren't filming. The convoy then moved on, destination unknown in the heart of eastern Ukraine's pro-Russia rebellion. Three hours later, people six miles (10 kilometers) west of Snizhne heard loud noises."

U.S. intelligence accounts say U.S. radar tracked the missile that hit MH17 taking off from a town near Snizhne. Video that has been geolocated to the town's central street also appears to show the Buk missile-launching system:

Local residents have told Western publications that they saw a mysterious missile launcher on the day of the attack

From "The Guardian":

"We were inside and heard a noise much louder than usual," said one shopkeeper, who did not want to be identified. "We came running out and saw a jeep disappearing into the distance with something much larger in front of it. Later, customers said it had been a missile carrier." In another shop further down the street, there was talk of a convoy of two jeeps and a missile launcher covered in a net driving past in the direction of the town of Snizhne. "I've never seen anything like it," said a middle-aged woman. She said her husband showed her a photograph of a Buk launcher afterwards and she realised that was indeed what she had seen. A group of men also said they had seen a Buk.

From "The Wall Street Journal":

"One Torez resident who works on the main road said the SA-11 was notable because he hadn't seen such a sophisticated ground-to-air missile system among the many military vehicles that had rolled through Torez since fighting began. He said what looked like the same truck later came back through town going the other way, without the missile."

Kyiv has accused Moscow of providing Russia-backed separatists with the missile system and other advanced weaponry amid increasingly sophisticated attacks on Ukrainian targets. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry has released video footage of what it claims is the Buk missile system, with one missile missing, heading back toward Russia. An investigation by "The Interpreter" magazine geolocated the video to Krasnodan, near Ukraine's border with Russia.

Some separatists have acknowledged their role in the attack -- albeit anonymously

From the Associated Press:

"A highly placed rebel, speaking to the AP this week, admitted that rebels were responsible. He said a unit based in the hometown of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, made up of both Russians and Ukrainians, was involved in the firing of an SA-11 from near Snizhne. The rebel, who has direct access to the inner circle of the insurgent leadership in Donetsk, said that he could not be named because he was contradicting the rebels' official line."

From "Corriere Della Sera" (Italian daily):

“On Thursday afternoon, our commanders ordered us to get into the lorries with our weapons and plenty of ammunition. Perhaps ten minutes earlier, there had been a huge explosion in the sky. ‘We’ve just shot down one of the Kiev Fascists’ planes’, they told us, warning us to take care because at least some of the crew had reportedly baled out. White objects had been seen floating in the clouds.

In audio released by Ukraine's National Security Service, rebel leaders apparently discuss seeing a potential target in the air minutes before MH17 is shot down then brag about hitting a Ukrainian military plane until they inspect the scene and realize it is a civilian aircraft.

A separatist leader has said rebels had access to a Buk missile launcher

Aleksandr Khodakovsky, a commander of the powerful "Vostok" separatist battalion, told Reuters he "knew a Buk was coming from Luhansk" towards Snizhne. Reuters released audio of the admission after Khodakovsky denied making the claim.

Separatist Commander Says Rebels Had Buk Missiles
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Analysts say photos taken by "New York Times" reporters shows damage consistent with a "supersonic missile"

“The perforation holes that are visible indicate that they are consistent with a foreign object entering from the exterior of the aircraft to the interior of the aircraft, given the contour of the aluminum around a majority of the perforations as well as the visible blistering of the paint around some of the holes themselves,” Reed Foster, an analyst at IHS Jane’s, wrote in an assessment provided to The Times.

A reporter for the "Telegraph" saw evidence of what could have been blowback from a missile launch at a site pegged by some as the Buk firing location

Blackened grains of wheat mark where the heat must have been fiercest. Among the scorched grass, melted fragments of plastic and discarded bottles litter the ground. On its own the scene is relatively benign. But then there is the context. The patch of blasted wheat and wildflowers lies just a few miles from the Russian border, 12 miles from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines, and – as the Telegraph discovered – just a few hundred meters from concealed rebel positions.

The "Telegraph" reporter said the environment fit with data on the rocket launch path released by the United States but that he could not conclude definitively that the site was used to launch the Buk.

Kyiv has been battling pro-Russian militants since April, when armed separatists began occupying key cities in Donetsk and Luhansk. Some 500 people -- including soldiers, rebels, and civilians -- had been killed before MH17 fell on July 17.

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer. 

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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