Investigators probing the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 have been provided with evidence that it was a Russian brigade from Kursk that brought down the plane, but determining who gave the order will prove much more difficult.
A year on from the grotesque calamity that killed all 298 people aboard MH17, the Dutch Safety Board, which has coordinated the investigation, is yet to present conclusive evidence as to the cause.
The preliminary report published last year found the plane had been brought down by a “large number of high-energy objects”, while a top secret draft of the final report, which won’t be released publicly until October, was last month sent to various national transport agencies, including in Australia.
Eliot Higgins, founder of the British-based open-source investigative group Bellingcat, was last week interviewed by police for a second time about his findings.
Higgins says it’s unlikely the Dutch Safety Board will make claims about who was responsible for the downing of MH17, but says there’s a “broad body of evidence” that indicated a Russian-made Buk missile hit the plane.
“I expect with access to the debris of MH17 and autopsies of the victims they’ll be able to confirm the type of missile used, and that’s likely why Russia is already criticising the report and are so against a UN tribunal,” Higgins told AAP.
Australia this week asked the United Nations to set up an international criminal tribunal to bring to justice those responsible for the outrage 12 months ago. The Russian government is resisting those efforts.
“As for the criminal investigation it’s harder to predict,” Higgins said.
He has been sending his findings directly to investigators, and has discussed with them Bellingcat’s methodology and tools.
Bellingcat investigated the crash using “open source” techniques including satellite images and social media to track the movement of various military vehicles and units.
“I’ve no doubt they’ll find it was a Russian Buk from the 53rd Brigade near Kursk that travelled to the border region around Millerovo, Russia, between June 23rd – 25th, then travelled through separatist territory on July 17th from Donetsk to Snizhe, where it was unloaded from the transporter and drove south out of town,” Higgins said.
“It then launched the missile from a field two kilometres south of the town, and later headed to Luhansk, after which it returned to Russia on the morning of July 18th.”
The Dutch prosecutor leading the international criminal investigation said two weeks ago that “the most likely scenario” remained that it was a Russian-made Buk missile system that shot down the Boeing 777 above eastern Ukraine on the Thursday afternoon of July 17, about an hour into its flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Prosecutor Fred Westerbreke told reporters in Rotterdam that investigators had identified a number of “persons of interest”. He did not elaborate.
Flight MH17 departed Amsterdam at about 12.15pm local time bound for for Kuala Lumpur carrying 15 crew and 283 passengers, mostly from the Netherlands and Malaysia. Among those passengers were also 39 Australian citizens and residents, some returning after spending the school holidays abroad.
Like many carriers, Malaysia Airlines had continued to fly over eastern Ukraine despite military aircraft having been shot down in same airspace by Russian-backed separatists.
The International Air Transport Association said at the time, however, that the route was not subject to flight restrictions. MH17 was flying at approximately 10,000 metres (33,000 feet). Airspace over the same route had been closed at lower altitudes.
Less than an hour into the flight, at 1pm, the crew contacts Ukrainian air controllers and requests a course change of 20 nautical miles (37km) to the north because of poor weather.
About 20 minutes later, authorities in Ukraine notify Malaysia Airlines that MH17 has disappeared from radar, approximately 50km from the Ukraine-Russia border.
The plane’s last reported position was at 33,000 feet and west of Ukraine’s border with Russia. The crash site is located near the village of Hrabove, which is held by pro-Russian separatists.
The Dutch Safety Board later reports the last flight data recording for MH17 was at 1.20pm (UTC).
Within hours of the crash, claims had emerged that the plane had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from territory held by Russian-backed separatists.
Separatist leader Igor Strelkov, aka Igor the Terrible, allegedly claimed responsibility on a social media website.
Strelkov, a top military commander of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, suggests the rebels shot down a civilian aircraft by mistake, believing it was a large Ukraine military transport aircraft. The post was swiftly deleted.
A conversation allegedly between separatists shortly after the crash was also released.
“There are lots of corpses of women and children,” the men can be heard to say.
“They say it’s written Malaysia Airlines on the plane. What was it doing on Ukraine’s territory?”
Alexander Khodakovsky, a former paratrooper who for years was a senior officer in Ukraine’s intelligence agency the SBU (Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrayiny) but is now a high-ranking member of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, initially confirmed the separatists had control of a Buk system, in the vicinity of where MH17 was shot down.
“I think they sent it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I found out that this tragedy had taken place,” Khodakovsky told Reuters last year, a week after the crash.
“They probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence,” he went on.
Khodakovsky later said he was “discussing theories”.
Higgins says he was interviewed as a witness once last year, and again last week, about his investigation.
“From the work we’ve done I think we can safely say the Buk missile launcher came from the Russian 53rd Brigade based near Kursk, and we can name many members of the unit, including various commanders,” he said.
“But I’m sure for the investigation they want to prove who gave the order to fire at MH17, which is something that’s more difficult to prove.”
Moscow has denied any responsibility, or even that Russian-backed separatists were involved, amid counterclaims that MH17 was shot down by a Ukrainian fighter jet, and the Russian government has slammed a draft UN Security Council resolution that would establish a tribunal as “counterproductive”.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Tuesday said the establishment of an international criminal tribunal would send a clear message that the international community will not tolerate acts that threaten international peace and security by endangering civil aviation.
“A tribunal established by the council would ensure broad international support for prosecutions and would maximise the prospects of securing international cooperation, which will be necessary for an effective prosecution,” Ms Bishop said.
Ms Bishop has said a criminal tribunal of the UN’s Security Council is the best way to ensure justice for the victims and their families.