MH17: Rebels likely shot down plane 'by mistake'

Last modified: 08: 52 AM GMT+0
  • US says ‘no evidence of Russia’s direct involvement’
  • Eyewitnesses tell the Guardian of likely Buk system in Torez
  • EU foreign ministers line up new sanctions on Russians
  • International teams receive trains carrying bodies in Kharkiv
  • Heavy fighting roils on near Donetsk and Luhansk

This liveblog is now closed. For continuing coverage go here.

The first of the bodies are being loaded on a transport plane at Kharkiv airport.

MH17 victims loaded onto a transport plane at Kharkiv airport
A worker uses a forklift to load coffins containing some of the remains of the MH17 victims at Kharkiv airport. Photograph: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS Photograph: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS
MH17 victims on transport plane in Kharkiv
A farewell ceremony for the first of the MH17 victims to be flown to Eindhoven Photograph: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS Photograph: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS




Air transfer of bodies to the Netherlands begins

The international response team is beginning to load bodies onto the plane.

Simple wooden coffins on the tarmac at Kharkiv airport

— Daniel Sandford (@BBCDanielS) July 23, 2014

Number of bodies recovered still unclear - Australian PM

Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has pledged to bring all victims home, but has said the response team will work under the UN resolution.

Abbott has stepped back from suggestions he made earlier this week that armed forces could be sent to the crash site to secure it.

It's still unclear how many bodies were sent on the train from Donetsk to Kharkiv.

However he also suggested current conditions could prevent the recovery of any missing bodies unless measures are taken.

"That would be completely unacceptable for bereaved families in Australia and right around the world," he said.

He said "new theories" was the most dignified way to describe Russia's own explanations for the circumstances around the crash.


Preparations are underway for bodies to be flown to the Netherlands from Kharkiv.

BBC field producer Kevin Bishop said a short ceremony will precede each departure.

A refrigerated truck with the first bodies of #mh17 victims has arrived at Kharkiv airport before being flown to holland in a few hours

— Kevin Bishop (@bishopk) July 23, 2014

It is believed that some 50 bodies in wooden coffins will be on the first flight. A short farewell ceremony will precede the departure

— Kevin Bishop (@bishopk) July 23, 2014


It is "not realistic" for international community leaders to expect an impartial investigation, says Vice News correspondent Simon Ostrovskyi from the Luhansk region, as he watches crews sift through, cut up and take away wreckage from the crash site.

Ostrovsky also spoke to locals in the region, one of whom told him they believe Ukrainian forces shot the plane down in the hope it would be blamed on the separatists.

Some detail on the US intelligence officials' presentation, which has been reported in the last 24 hours.

US intelligence services - which were the first to say that rebels likely downed the plane last week - have delivered a comprehensive explanation of their case. The Wall Street Journal has provided details, and you can read its comprehensive report here (paywalled).

Essentially it explains that officials relied on evidence in the form of photographs, social media posts and communications intercepts (all of which we have heard of in recent days). They also presented new evidence, including shrapnel damage to the wreckage, visible in photographs, consistent with a surface-to-air missile, and aerial photos of a training centre which they said was wear separatists were taught to use weapons systems.

However the evidence didn't make the case that Russia was certainly directly involved.

Other U.S. officials, including some at the Pentagon, have said more assertively in recent days that Russia likely provided the missile system used by separatists to shoot down Flight 17. The more restrained presentation by intelligence officials Tuesday reflected the cautious nature of intelligence analysis.

There is a "solid case it was an SA-11 fired from Eastern Ukraine under conditions created by Russia," a top U.S. intelligence official said. - WSJ

GRABOVO, UKRAINE - JULY 22:  Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 lies in a field on July 22, 2014 in Grabovo, Ukraine.
GRABOVO, UKRAINE - JULY 22: Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 lies in a field on July 22, 2014 in Grabovo, Ukraine. Photograph: Rob Stothard/Getty Images Photograph: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

The black boxes are on their way to Britain's Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) for analysis, and the extraction is expected to be finished within 24 hours. Experts from several countries will be assisting.

The decision on how much of it is released to the public lies with the Dutch authorities leading the international investigation.

A powerful video from the BBC, as Natalia Antelava speaks to villagers around the crash site as they hold a memorial service for the crash victims.

"There are so many political disagreements here, so much blame, everyone is blaming the rebels, the government in Kiev, Russia, the US, but one that is pretty clear is that the villagers who live around here are very traumatised by what happened," she said.

Watch it here.


The Russian permanent representative at the European Union Vladimir Chizhov has said the crash is a "wake up call" for Europe to stop inciting violence in Ukraine.

“It should serve as a wake-up call for everybody to stop instigating violence, stop supporting the Ukrainian government in its military campaign against civilians," he told CNN.

Chizhov also said Ukraine is producing fake evidence which pointed towards Russian-backed rebels shooting the plane down.

“In the meantime, the United States government has said that it has mounting evidence pointing to what they - to those whom they call rebels or separatists, but have yet to produce any piece, any tangible piece of evidence."

From Kate Hodal in Malaysia:

Prime Minister Najib Razak told a special parliamentary meeting that a full investigation into the downing of MH17 was necessary in order to determine why the passenger plane had crashed, whether it was shot down by a missile, who shot it down, who supplied the weapons and what the motives were.

"Furthermore, was the shoot-down a planned attack on a commercial aircraft or an accidental mistake? All of this needs clear and accurate evidence," he said, adding that - if a missile were indeed the reason - only "irrefutable proof" would be accepted as confirmation.

"If the allegations are true, we condemn in the strongest terms the inhumane, uncivilised, violent and irresponsible action of the parties believed to have shot down flight MH17."

Najib has also directed Malaysia's Attorney-General, Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail, to investigate the crash within international laws.

After a week of keeping largely silent on MH17 - which observers have said allowed him to personally negotiate with rebel leader Alexander Borodai - Najib said he was sad and disappointed with the way the separatists had handled the crash site, their failure to keep crucial evidence from being stolen or tampered with, and said that their delay in allowing investigators into the site had resulted in a lack of dignity awarded to victims' remains.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation, which regulates global aviation safety, should pass a resolution condemning the attack on MH17, he said.

A quick update on the other Malaysian Airlines plane - MH370:

The search for MH370, which is believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia on March 8, continues uninterrupted despite the top search official shifting his attention to recovering bodies from the Ukraine air disaster.

Angus Houston the head of Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Center, which oversees the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, has been retasked to lead the repatriation of Australian victims and assist with the multinational response to MH17.

The former Australian defense chief was in the Ukraine town of Kharkiv today as the prime minister's special envoy to receive the bodies of Australian victims.

Transport Minister Warren Truss said in a statement on Wednesday the search for Flight 370 "continues uninterrupted."

The train carrying about 200 body bags containing the remains of most of the passengers has arrived in Kharkiv but the plane is not expected to take them on to the Netherlands for identification until Wednesday local time, a forensics specialist has said.

It's not entirely clear how many of the victims have been recovered from the crash site near Donetsk, but a representative of the OSCE said there were still human remains left behind.

"We did not observe any recovery activity in place," spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said after his group inspected the site earlier in the day.

An interactive showing flight paths over Europe before, at the same time as, and after the crash of MH17 last week illustrates the dramatic shift in routes.

The Wall Street Journal's map also show a number of flights in the same area on the same day.

Wall Street Journal interactive MH17 screenshot, showing flight paths on July 17
Wall Street Journal interactive MH17 screenshot, showing flight paths on July 17 Photograph: /Wall Street Journal Photograph: Wall Street Journal

Australian C-17 at Eindhoven airbase before take-off. Flies to Ukraine to bring #MH17 victims back to Netherlands

— Annemieke Ruigrok (@JGMRuigrok) July 23, 2014

"I was very proud yesterday to be in this country when the Australian foreign minister spoke at the UN," former US president Bill Clinton has told an AIDS conference in Melbourne.

"and overwhelmed by the comments of the Dutch foreign minister, who took my breath away when he speculated what the last moments of those people must have been like."

"It is important to think of the comments of the Dutch foreign minister before giving into temptation to say: maybe we should weaken our resolve to take a strong stand because after all - they didn't mean to shoot this plane down.

It is important in this group that devotes its life to giving other people life they were honour the service and lives of those lost an the promise of the children that was cut short.

"It matters not that the murder was meant to be committed against other people."

At least six of the MH17 passengers were delegates on their way to the conference.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton addresses the 20th International AIDS Conference at The Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre on July 23, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. Several researchers, activists and health workers due to attend the conference were killed enroute in the Malaysian Airlines plane MH17 shot down over Eastern Ukraine.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton addresses the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Several researchers, activists and health workers due to attend the conference were killed enroute in the Malaysian Airlines plane MH17 shot down over Eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Graham Denholm/Getty Images Photograph: Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Local media have also shared further information on when the remains of Malaysian passengers are expected to arrive, reports Kate Hodal.

The NST quoted special investigation team chef de mission Khairil Hilmi Mokhtar, who is currently in Ukraine, as saying the bodies may be back by the end of the week.

"Insyallah, the first of the bodies can be brought back by Friday ... [W]e will work round the clock to make good on the Prime Minister’s instructions to bring our Malaysians home by Hari Raya [Eid].”

Najib has also told Parliament that the bodies of Malaysian passengers are expected to come back to home soil as soon as forensic tests have been completed in Amsterdam.

PM Najib: Remains of Malaysian #MH17 crash victims to be brought back as soon as possible after forensic tests in Amsterdam RT @NewsBFM

— Kate Hodal (@katehodal) July 23, 2014

"This August House firmly condemns in the strongest terms, the inhumane, uncivilised, violent and irresponsible action of the parties believed to have shot down flight MH17, resulting in the loss of 298 lives comprising 283 passengers and 15 crew who are innocent," Malaysian PM Najib read out from the five-paragraph motion, the New Straits Times reports.

Najib is speaking during a motion currently being tabled in Parliament demanding a "comprehensive investigation" into the crash of MH17.

Speaking this morning, Najib opened the meeting with powerful words after taking a somewhat muted approach over the past few days - a tactic analysts said allowed him to negotiate directly with rebels to secure the return of the remains of 282 bodies and the black boxes.

He added: "The August House records its condolences and commiserations as well as deepest sympathies to all the family members, friends and acquaintances of the passengers and crew of MH17."

The black boxes have been handed over to the Dutch Safety Board and will be sent to Farnborough for investigation.

The Malaysian parliament will begin a special session on MH17 shortly. The Guardian's Kate Hodal will keep us up to date when it begins.

Malaysia to begin special parliamentary sitting on #MH17 in 10 minutes. Motion to condemn missile attack on plane

— Kate Hodal (@katehodal) July 23, 2014

The prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak preparing a parliamentary motion earlier.

Membuat persiapan terakhir sebelum membentangkan usul Parlimen mengenai #MH17 .

— Mohd Najib Tun Razak (@NajibRazak) July 23, 2014

The intense negotiations done to secure a unanimous vote from the UN security council on the MH17 resolution has been described in detail by Brendan Nicholson at the Australian newspaper. The resolution was drafted by Australia and until the last minute it wasn't known if Russia would exercise its veto power. Here is an excerpt:

Bishop called in the Russian ambassador, who was tracked down in Sydney, but found the meeting far from satisfactory.

“It certainly gave me an indication of the talking points from Moscow,” she said. “He was working according to a script.” That included blaming Ukraine for a disaster the best evidence suggested was the work of Russian-backed separatists.

Bishop spent the rest of Friday speaking to foreign ministers from nations that had lost people on the aircraft. The British signalled that they were worried about what was happening at the crash site, which remained under the control of rebel soldiers.

London issued a second statement, circulated by Australia and Britain, but again Russia said “no”.

Read Nicholson's piece in full here (paywalled).

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (C) votes for a United Nations Security Council draft resolution regarding the Malaysian Airlines MH17 crash, at the UN headquarters on July 21, 2014 in New York City.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (C) votes for a United Nations Security Council draft resolution regarding the Malaysian Airlines MH17 crash, at the UN headquarters on July 21, 2014 in New York City. Photograph: Xinhua/Landov/Barcroft Media Photograph: Xinhua /Landov / Barcroft Media

The deal made between the Malaysian delegation and the separatist group in Ukraine was "risky" but Malaysia had an "obligation to the families," Razak has said.

After meeting the families, I felt that we owed it to them to act. These were extraordinary circumstances which called for extraordinary measures," he said in a statement reported by the Star Online.

“There were risks involved in pursuing this agreement. So far, the agreement has been honoured.”

He said two of three conditions had been met by the rebels.

Malaysia Airlines has released a statement regarding the black boxes handover by the separatists.

"Following the agreement Prime Minister Najib Razak brokered with rebel leaders, Malaysia has taken custody of flight MH17's black boxes. As the Prime Minister said, they will be passed to the international investigation team for analysis.

The international investigation team, led by the Netherlands, has decided to pass the black boxes to the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch for forensic analysis. It is normal procedure for black boxes to be sent for analysis to the nearest laboratory authorised by the International Civil Aviation Association.

The black boxes will therefore be flown to Farnborough, UK, accompanied by Malaysian experts and other members of the international investigation team."

A lack of any swift concrete response by the US or Europe — and the aggressive denials by Russia — has left many Ukrainians fearful of complacency by other nations, writes David Herszenhorn for the New York Times.

Even President Petro O. Poroshenko, reluctant to offend allies in the West, has subtly expressed growing exasperation in recent days. He has urged the United States Congress to designate the main separatist groups in eastern Ukraine as terrorist groups, a step he took without first seeking approval from the White House.

Read the piece in full here.

About 2,000 refugees per day are crossing the border from Ukraine to the Rostov region of Russia, and some 400 refugee camps, run by local authorities, are stretched to the limit.

Since June 4, more than 220,000 refugees have crossed the border from Ukraine to the Rostov region, Governor Vassily Golubev said.

"Since April 1, over 515,000 people have arrived from southeastern Ukraine," the head of Russia's migration service (FMS) Konstantin Romodanovsky said this week.

Australian families may be given the option to fly to the Netherlands and accompany the bodies of their loved ones back home, prime minister Tony Abbott has said.

"By its very nature, it may take some weeks before we can honour the dead by returning them to those they loved and those that loved them. But we will bring them home," he said in a statement.

"Once the Australian victims of MH17 have been identified, the government will transport their families to the Netherlands, should they wish, so they can accompany their loved ones home."

Australia's governor general, Sir Peter Cosgrove, has been sent to the Netherlands to meet the flight which will transport the bodies from Kharkiv, Ukraine.

An OSCE spokesman tells press about the crash site, including that there are still body parts remaining in the area.

Despite UK prime minister David Cameron's criticisms of France's €1.2bn deal to send warships to Russia, the UK itself has only suspended a fraction of outstanding licences to sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of arms to Russia.

Cameron has been vocal in calling for Europe-wide bans of arms sales because of the war in Ukraine. The government said in March it would stop arms sales to Russia.

A report from four of UK arliament's select committees, said that as of mid-May only 34 of 285 outstanding licences worth more than 131 million pounds ($223.41 million) had been suspended or revoked, Reuters reports.

"Many people ... given the nature of the Russian regime, will be wondering why it is the UK is giving export approval to a particular number of items on that list," said John Stanley, chairman of parliament's Committees on Arms Export Controls.

A spokesman for Cameron said Britain's ban was "comprehensive" and all arms exports to the Russian military had been stopped, but not licenses for hunting enthusiasts. However lawmakers said approved contracts included body armour, assault rifle components and military comms equipment.

The lawmakers' report covered exports in 2013, before the current ban on arms sales to the Russian military entered into force, the government spokesman said.


Russian must face increasing costs if it continues to support the separatists, US president Barack Obama and the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte have agreed in a phone call.

According to a statement from the White House, the two leaders noted their concern about “further evidence that Russia is continuing to send weapons and fighters across the border to support the separatists, while continuing to mass its own forces."

"The president welcomed the action taken today by the European Union's Foreign Affairs Council strongly condemning the actions leading to this tragedy and preparing additional sanctions against those destabilizing Ukraine," the statement said.

They also agreed the first priority was repatriation of the victims’ bodies, and then to ensure the crash site was open to international investigators for a full probe.


Welcome to our continuing coverage of the aftermath of the MH17 plane crash disaster. You can read previous developments here.


Helen Davidson

The GuardianTramp

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