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MH17 report suggests efforts were made to cover up causes of disaster

The Guardian The Guardian 13/10/2015 Luke Harding at Gilze-Rijen airbase, Shaun Walker in Moscow and Julian Borger in London

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The long-awaited Dutch report into the shooting down of flight MH17 suggests attempts were made to cover up the causes of the disaster, including a bungled autopsy on the body of the captain in which metal fragments from a Buk missile were deliberately removed.

Dutch investigators said on Tuesday that the crew members were killed instantly, after a Russian-built Buk missile exploded within a metre of their cockpit. The blast ejected hundreds of pieces of shrapnel into the plane with “tremendous force”.

But they declined to apportion blame for who had downed the plane, merely saying the rocket was fired from a 320 square km area of eastern Ukraine. Further “forensic investigation” was needed to determine the precise launch site.

But speaking to Dutch journalists in The Hague, in the corridor of parliament, Joustra later admitted that the Buk missile was fired from a rebel-controlled area.

He told the Volkskrant newspaper: “The boundaries fluctuated a bit, but it is an area where pro-Russian rebels wrested control.”

He added: “If you really want to determine the location, you should take soil samples and examine witnesses. This is not our competence.”

The report by the Dutch safety board said that more than 120 objects, “mostly metal fragments”, were found in the body of the first officer, who had sustained “multiple fractures”.. When Dutch experts identified the captain’s body they found it had already “undergone an external and internal examination to remove foreign objects”.

Despite apparent attempts to remove shrapnel, “hundreds of metal objects were found”, the report said, as well as bone fractures and other injuries.

Among the fragments of missile shrapnel examined, two were in the shape of a bow-tie, which the Dutch board found to be characteristic of a particular type of Buk missile warhead. However, the Russian manufacturer had earlier denied that any such fragments were found, and insisted an older BUK model was used, one that was no longer in service in the Russian armed forces.

The Boeing 777 was shot down on 17 July, 2014, over an area of Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed rebels, who for several days refused to allow access to the sprawling crash site. All 298 people on board died.

The report noted that some “aeroplane parts and cargo” photographed immediately after the crash vanished. “Avionics units” from the cockpit disappeared too. Other pieces of wreckage, filmed by investigators and showing perforation and soot, had gone by the time they came to take them away.

The Dutch safety board has led a 15-month multinational investigation into the causes of the crash. On Tuesday it showed off the reconstructed front section of the plane at a hanger in the Gilze-Rijen airbase in southern Holland. It was a ghostly sight. Inside were the mangled seats where the two pilots had sat.

The reconstructed wreckage of the MH17 airplane. © REUTERS/Michael Kooren The reconstructed wreckage of the MH17 airplane. The plane’s left glass windscreen was perforated with holes. The crumpled metal cockpit floor featured large gouges. From outside, the devastating impact of the Buk missile was visible: a scattering of gashes, immediately below the port side of the cockpit. The metal had sliced diagonally though the plane, exiting from the lower right-side.

The right side of the plane was largely unscathed. Five windows from business class could be seen above the red and blue stripe of Malaysia Airlines livery. The door where the passengers entered had survived. Poignantly, its emergency opening instructions were intact.

Speaking in front of the rebuilt plane, the board’s chairman, Tjibbe Joustra, said MH17 was cruising at 33,000 ft on a routine flight path to Asia when a 9N314M warhead hit it. The warhead was fitted to a “9M28 missile”. It had been fired from a Russian-built Buk surface-to-air missile system. Joustra ruled out other scenarios that might explain the disaster.

An animated video showed the moment the Buk struck the left-hand side of the cockpit. On-board microphones recorded the moment of impact. This allowed investigators to determine the devastating blast occurred on the upper-left hand side of the cockpit.

According to Joustra, the passenger plane broke up midair. The cockpit and the floor of the business class cabin tore away almost instantly from the main body and crashed. The rest of the plane continued flying for about five miles in an easterly direction, hitting the ground about a minute to a minute-and-a-half later. Debris was scattered over 50 square km.

The report said that some passengers “suffered serious injuries that probably resulted in their deaths”. Others became unconsciousness “in a very short space of time”. It said: “It cannot be ruled out that some occupants remained conscious for some time during the one to one-and-a-half minutes for which the crash lasted.” No photos or text messages were found on phones recovered from the scene.

Earlier on Tuesday Joustra delivered his report to relatives of the victims in The Hague. It conceded that family members had to wait “an unnecessarily long period of time” for formal confirmation that their loved ones were dead. The Dutch authorities “lacked management and coordination”, it added.

Two thirds of the victims were Dutch nationals, with others from nine other countries including Malaysia and Australia. Ten British nationals were killed. Claudio Villaca-Vanetta, whose husband Glenn Thomas, from Blackpool, died on board MH17, said: “We had some of the answers we were looking for today, but by far not all of them.

“We now know for sure that Malaysia Airlines was allowed to fly there, and we know now that it was a bad decision by Ukraine to leave the airspace open and that by just raising the cruise height it was safe for commercial airliners. We know there was a missile which is manufactured in Russia only.

“Of course, this doesn’t tell us who did it, who is accountable for it. That is where we want to get now.”

The reconstructed cockpit is seen after the presentation of the final report. © REUTERS/Michael Kooren The reconstructed cockpit is seen after the presentation of the final report. David Cameron welcomed the report and said “those responsible for downing this plane will be held to account”. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, urged Russia to cooperate in the investigation. “The priority now is to find and pursue those who are responsible.” Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, however, called the report “biased in nature”.

The board had previously made clear its findings would not deal with blame and liability. A criminal investigation by the Dutch prosecutor’s office is scheduled to conclude in 2016.

On Tuesday Joustra said the Buk had been fired from area of eastern Ukraine which since April 2014 had been the scene of fighting between pro-Russia separatists backed by Moscow and Ukrainian government forces.

The Netherlands, Ukraine and Russia had all carried out their own simulations into the missile’s probable trajectory. Russia was the only one of the seven countries involved in the report’s preparation that dissented from its central conclusions, Joustra said, adding that Moscow believed “it was impossible to determine the type of missile or warhead with any certainty”.

It is widely assumed that Russia-backed separatists were responsible for bringing down MH17, but the US has stopped short of blaming Moscow directly. The Kremlin has blamed Kiev – variously suggesting that a Ukrainian military jet shot down the Boeing 777 – a theory the report dismisses – or that a missile was launched from a government-held area.

The Russian simulation includes areas under Ukrainian government control. The other simulations suggest the Buk was fired from separatist territory. An open-source investigation by the website Bellingcat, published last week, tracks the Buk from a Russian military base in Kursk. It was then smuggled across the Ukrainian border, and taken back to Russia after the Buk rocket was fired.

In Moscow, the makers of Buk missile systems, Almaz-Antey, gave a press conference on Tuesday morning apparently aimed at distracting attention from the Dutch report. The manufacturer said it had performed two experiments it says proved one of its missiles could not have been launched from areas under pro-Russia separatist control.

Wreckage of MH17. © REUTERS/Michael Kooren Wreckage of MH17. Meanwhile, Joustra said there was a simple, “dispiriting” answer to the question: why was MH17 allowed to fly above eastern Ukraine? It had not occurred to anybody that the airspace was unsafe for civilian jets at cruising altitude, he said. This was despite the fact that 16 Ukrainian aircraft and helicopters had been downed since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

About 160 civilian planes flew over the area on the day of the disaster. Three were in “close proximity” when the Buk was fired, he said. Ukraine should have closed its airspace to civilian traffic, he added.

On the ground the crash sites were left unguarded in the days after the disaster, with journalists and rebel fighters able to wander freely in the fields. There were numerous reports of looting and tampering with evidence, although rebel authorities angrily denied them.

The clear-up mission was complicated by the proximity to the front lines of the crash site and what sometimes appeared to be deliberate obstruction from the rebels.

While local emergency services performed gruesome cleanup feats in difficult conditions, there was little coordination or oversight of the work and on occasions bodies and possessions were seen being thrown into unmarked vehicles. In the days after the crash, Australia’s then prime minister, Tony Abbott, said there had been “evidence of tampering on an industrial scale”.

The plane’s black boxes were also subject to intrigue, with Ukrainian security services releasing audio recordings it alleged showed rebel leaders coordinating a ground search for the boxes and demanding that when found they were kept secret, as Moscow wanted to examine them first.

The Donetsk authorities denied the recordings were authentic. The boxes were handed over to a Malaysian delegation by rebel leaders in Donetsk four days after the crash.

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