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As Attention Focuses On Dead, Ukraine Crash Site Remains Gray Zone

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region on July 17.
An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region on July 17.

The contrast could not be more stark.

In the Netherlands, some 1,000 relatives of those who died aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 gathered on July 23 in Eindhoven to receive the first bodies returned from the crash site in eastern Ukraine.

The sad occasion, attended by Dutch leaders and representatives of all the other countries who lost citizens in the tragedy, was marked by tears and renewed vows to determine the cause of the crash. More bodies arrived on July 24 and still more are expected in the coming days.

But at the crash site in eastern Ukraine, there is almost no activity currently that could help prove what killed all 298 people aboard. Western officials believe the plane was downed on July 17 by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russian separatists, but the separatists blame Ukrainian forces instead.

The fact that a whole week has now passed with only limited access for international investigators is raising fears that the crash site is becoming so compromised that it could be increasingly difficult to ever conclusively prove what brought the plane down.

In one sign of mounting worry, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told reporters on July 24 in Canberra that "there has still not been anything like a thorough, professional search of the area where the plane came down."

He also said that Australia had sent 50 police to London in hopes they can go to the site and secure it for investigators but it remains unclear if or when they would receive permission to do so from the pro-Russian rebels who control the territory.

Crash Scene 'Compromised'

The continuing doubts about whether Australia's or any other state's police could help to secure the site come despite the UN Security Council unanimously passing a resolution on July 21 calling for an international investigation into the crash and demanding that armed groups at the crash site allow unfettered access.

Analysts say that to conclusively prove what caused a plane to crash, investigators need to be able to follow well established procedures that yield evidence strong enough to stand up in court. But the chaotic conditions at the crash site so far have made following such procedures all but impossible.

"Anytime a crash site such as this is interfered with in any way -- and that might be with people walking over the crash site, it might be with pieces of the debris being lifted by artificial means and also pieces of the debris potentially being cut into -- compromises greatly the scene itself," says Chris Yates, an independent aviation analyst based in Bolton, England.

Malaysian air-crash investigators take photos of the crash site of Flight MH17 on July 22.
Malaysian air-crash investigators take photos of the crash site of Flight MH17 on July 22.

Since the plane crashed on July 17, separatists have allowed curious residents of nearby towns and villages to tour the site, have themselves reportedly moved wreckage around, and evacuated bodies from the site. But they have only allowed a handful of Ukrainian, Dutch and Malaysian forensic and aviation experts to visit the location, in addition to representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Reports Of Tampering

In the meantime, worrying reports that the separatists who control the site may be deliberately tampering with debris have emerged.

The BBC on July 23 quoted unidentified U.K. government sources as saying that British intelligence showed rebels have deliberately tampered with evidence, moving bodies and placing parts from other planes in the debris.

OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw told the BBC on July 23 that parts of the plane wreckage had been changed since OSCE officials at the site last saw it, with large pieces of the plane having been cut into.

Yates says that it remains to be determined whether the pieces were cut to remove bodies or to deliberately remove evidence. But he says that, like limited access to a site, any tampering with crash debris makes it harder for investigators to do conclusive work. "It is not enough that the investigators are simply only allowed to walk around the wreckage and take an occasional photograph and so on," he says.

"What this investigation needs is a thorough analysis of that wreckage," Yates adds. "It needs an analysis that involves, for example, trace-detection technology that would allow investigators to determine what kind of explosive there might have been in the warhead."

Yates says that through a chemical analysis of any traces of explosive, investigators could hope to determine the makeup of the explosive and get an indication as to the country where the warhead was manufactured.

He adds that close examination of the fuselage can offer other clues as well, including whether "there is shrapnel damage on the fuselage and whether the airframe has bits bent inwards instead of outwards," all signs of whether an explosion came from outside or inside the plane.

Conclusions Will Be In Doubt

In most plane crashes, investigators not only have the chance to immediately begin carefully examining undisturbed debris at the site within hours of a plane going down, they also later remove pieces to reassemble bits of the fuselage to help them better understand the nature of the damage.

But the fact that the crash site of MH17 is in a war zone makes that kind of time-consuming investigation of this air tragedy unlikely.

"I think there is going to be a big problem here in that with two warring factions, with the Malaysian jet and the investigation, of course, in between those two warring factions, any investigation that goes forward will be seriously compromised," Yates says.

He adds that that in turn could open the door to endless debate of whatever conclusions the investigators do reach, particularly if they are presented as evidence in courts.

Several countries have already called for anyone found to be responsible for downing the Malaysia Airlines flight to face trial. "If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must swiftly be brought to justice," Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said on the day the plane crashed.

Dutch prosecutors said on July 21 that they were launching a war crimes probe into the downing of Flight 17.

The plane went down while flying a regular commercial airliner route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

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