A pro-Russian separatist stands at the crash site of
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, near the settlement of
Grabovo in the Donetsk region. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev
As international investigators head to rebel-held eastern
Ukraine to piece together what, and who, caused a Malaysian
airliner to plunge into the steppe, securing evidence in the
middle of a war zone is a major challenge.
Proving what happened beyond doubt and to the satisfaction of
the warring parties may already be all but impossible, after
local people and rebel fighters have spent 24 hours sifting
and moving debris and bodies, and Ukraine and Russia make
detailed allegations against each other and argue over the
In principle, all sides support a call, backed by Russia and
other world powers in the U.N. Security Council, for an
impartial international investigation. But even agreeing the
Kiev government has jurisdiction in a region where
separatists have declared their own republic poses
"It is a national competence, and that is part of the problem
in this case," said Roland Bless, spokesman for the Swiss
chair of Europe's OSCE security body, referring to rebel
claims to sovereignty in the eastern region of Donetsk.
The OSCE said some of its staff had visited the impact site
on Friday, a day after the aircraft was lost with 298 aboard,
but they were met by rebels firing in the air.
"They did not have the kind of access that they expected,"
said Thomas Greminger, the OSCE's permanent council chairman.
"They did not have the freedom of movement that they need to
do their job. The crash site is not sealed off."
Separatists said they recovered both flight recorders from
the Boeing 777 and are willing to cooperate, including by
agreeing to a ceasefire. But officials in Kiev accused them
of trying to spirit the black boxes, and a missile launcher
they used to shoot the plane down, across the nearby Russian
Russia, which under normal circumstances would have no
obvious stake in the air accident investigation of a
U.S.-made Malaysia Airlines plane flying from Amsterdam to
Kuala Lumpur, has said it does not intend to take the
In a typical crash inquiry, it is up to Ukraine, on whose
territory the plane came down, to secure the area and recover
the flight data and cockpit voice recordings and liaise with
the manufacturer to ensure their contents are downloaded
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has already spoken with
other world leaders about the running of an international
investigation, which could allay some of the rivalries.
Ukraine issued invitations to assist with an investigation to
U.N., U.S. and European air safety organizations, the
aircraft manufacturer Boeing, Malaysia and the Netherlands,
the U.S. State Department said.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, the
Montreal-based U.N. air safety arm, offered to assemble a
team of international investigators. Boeing said it would
provide whatever assistance is requested by authorities.
The United States said it would send one investigator each
from the National Transportation Safety Board, its air safety
organization, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, its
criminal investigation agency.
The NTSB investigator was expected to leave for Kiev on
Friday and more could be sent if needed, an official said.
The NTSB typically sends one to three investigators, though
they have sent as many as eight to 10 in cases where the host
country asked the agency to lead the investigation.
ACCESS TO CRASH SITE
A U.S. official said American investigators currently had no
expectation of being able to visit the crash site because of
the security situation in the region where the plane went
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told MSNBC
television that delay in investigators gaining access to the
crash site was a "matter of concern."
A U.S. official with knowledge of the situation said the FBI
would lead the U.S. portion of the investigation because the
crash appeared to be a criminal matter and the regular
protocols on accident investigations don't apply.
The official said unless the black boxes were badly damaged,
many countries would have the technical capability to access
the recording devices and retrieve the data. With separatist
rebels in control of the boxes, that has raised concern the
data could be tampered with.
"It's very important that unbiased international experts will
be the first persons who get access to the black boxes," said
Ukraine's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Yurii Klymenko.
"The issue is who will ... open the boxes? We would like to
have the true information, not the fake one."
If another body obtains the recorders it must hand them over,
otherwise it will run the risk of corrupting the data or
being suspected of trying to destroy it, said London lawyer
Jim Morris from Irwin Mitchell, a former British military
After a Soviet fighter shot down Korean Air Lines flight KAL
007 in 1983 when it strayed into Soviet air space, Moscow
found the black box but only handed it to international
investigators after the end of the Cold War nearly a decade
Ron Hosko, a retired FBI agent who has worked on a number of
international investigations, said early-hour diplomacy
between the United States, Ukraine and Russian separatists is
critical to assure a safe, unadulterated investigation.
"The next couple of days are absolutely critical," Hosko
said. "We need some kind of agreement to be forged to clear
out a protective zone around that debris. If we're stalled,
that presents an opportunity for those who are guilty to
scrub the scene so that we can't prove the case."
Brian Alexander, an aviation attorney at New York law firm
Kreindler and Kreindler, said that despite the "dicey"
situation in the area, "with the international pressure, the
community should be able to get a team to the site and allow
an investigation to proceed as normally."
"But trying to figure out who provided the training, the
weapons, that's a much thornier issue," he said, adding that
investigators would be looking for debris not part of the
The flight data may offer little information on what caused
the 777 to come down. An explosion by a heavy missile that
blew the aircraft apart could show only as a sudden,
catastrophic collapse of all the onboard systems.
If, as Ukraine alleges, MH17 was hit by an SA-11 missile,
there is a good chance the pilots did not see it coming,
leaving little or no informative trace on the cockpit voice
The wreckage might show traces of explosives that could
indicate the blast of a warhead. Somewhere in the debris
strewn for miles across the steppe might be remnants of a
missile. But finding them will be hard and proving their
provenance after the confusion and mutual accusations of the
first day will be tough.
A former British airman said: "Any recovered missile
fragments could be analysed. But unless there is a stark
difference in the exact type of arms both sides hold,
differentiating is not easy."
In fact all sides use similar former Soviet hardware.