Formidable task for MH17 crash investigators

16:10, Jul 18 2014
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Malaysia Airlines flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
The crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Emergencies Ministry members work at the site of a Malaysia Airlines plane crash near Grabovo, Ukraine.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Emergencies Ministry members work at the site of a Malaysia Airlines plane crash near Grabovo, Ukraine.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight 17 smoulders at the main crash site.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight 17 smoulders at the main crash site.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight 17 smoulders at the main crash site.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17
Wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight 17 smoulders at the main crash site.
Part of the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 is seen after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region.
Part of the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 is seen after it crashed near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region.
MALAYSIA2
The site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region.
The upper floor of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is reserved for family and relatives of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
The upper floor of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is reserved for family and relatives of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Ukraine plane crash
An Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in Ukraine.
People bring flowers and candles to the Dutch embassy to commemorate the victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
People bring flowers and candles to the Dutch embassy to commemorate the victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
Family members of passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on a bus bringing them to a separate area at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.
Family members of passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on a bus bringing them to a separate area at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranked officials observe a minute's silence for victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and other high-ranked officials observe a minute's silence for victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
US President Barack Obama speaks about the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, during a visit to Wilmington, Delaware.
US President Barack Obama speaks about the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, during a visit to Wilmington, Delaware.
Armed pro-Russian separatists stand at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo.
Armed pro-Russian separatists stand at the site of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash near the settlement of Grabovo.
Talking to reporters, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (R) demands swift justice for those responsible for the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, as Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein looks on.
Talking to reporters, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (R) demands swift justice for those responsible for the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, as Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein looks on.
Schiphol Chief Executive Jos Nijhuis, Malaysia Airlines Senior Vice President Huib Gorter (middle) and Malaysia's ambassador to the Netherlands Fauziah Binti Mohd Taib at a news conference on flight MH17 at Schiphol Airport.
Schiphol Chief Executive Jos Nijhuis, Malaysia Airlines Senior Vice President Huib Gorter (middle) and Malaysia's ambassador to the Netherlands Fauziah Binti Mohd Taib at a news conference on flight MH17 at Schiphol Airport.
Smoke rises from the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Smoke rises from the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
MH17
A firefighter stands as flames burst amongst the wreckages of the MH17.
MH17
The wreckage smoulders at the site of the MH17 crash.
An Emergencies Ministry member walks at the site of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
An Emergencies Ministry member walks through the site of the Malaysia Airlines plane crash.
A woman who said she believed her sister was on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, cries as she waits for more information.
A woman who said she believed her sister was on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, cries as she waits for more information.
A father and daughter light candles at the Dutch embassy to commemorate the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
A father and daughter light candles at the Dutch embassy to commemorate the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
People light candles at the Malaysian embassy for victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
People light candles at the Dutch embassy for victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
People place candles and flowers at the Dutch embassy for victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
People place candles and flowers at the Dutch embassy for victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
A family member cries as she receives the news of the ill fated flight MH17.
A family member cries as she receives the news of the ill fated flight MH17.
A Malaysian woman who had a relative on board the Malaysian Airlines MH17 reacts to messages on her mobile phone as she waits to travel to Kuala Lumpur.
A Malaysian woman who had a relative on board the Malaysian Airlines MH17 waits to travel to Kuala Lumpur.
Relatives of passengers onboard the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Relatives of passengers onboard the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
A father and daughter light candles at the Dutch embassy to commemorate the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17.
Malaysian Siti Dina weeps after seeing her daughter's name on the list of passengers on board MH17.
A security officer passes a Malaysia Airlines advertisement at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia.
A security officer passes a Malaysia Airlines advertisement at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang
A man (in blue) whose family was onboard the Malaysia Airlines MH17 consoles another who had just arrived with her wife to receive confirmation that their daughter's family was onboard the plane, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
A man (in blue) whose family was onboard the Malaysia Airlines MH17 consoles another who had just arrived with her wife to receive confirmation that their daughter's family was onboard the plane, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
A relative of a passenger onboard the Malaysia Airlines (MAS) MH17 is assisted by MAS staff members as she leaves Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
A relative of a passenger onboard the Malaysia Airlines (MAS) MH17 is assisted by MAS staff members as she leaves Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Malaysian Siti Dina speaks to media as she arrives to confirm news that her daughter was on board Malaysia Airlines MH17 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Malaysian Siti Dina speaks to media as she arrives to confirm news that her daughter was on board Malaysia Airlines MH17 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
AIDS Conference
Members of the public walk past signage on the Princes Bridge for the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Twenty-seven Australians and more than 100 AIDS activists, researchers, health workers and delegates bound for the major conference were among those aboard MH17.
MH17
Relatives of passengers on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
A journalist takes photographs at the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash
A journalist takes photographs at the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash.
Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry search for bodies near the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash.
Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry search for bodies near the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash.
Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry search for bodies near the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash.
Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry search for bodies near the site of Thursday's Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash.
MH17 crash
A woman lights candles at a memorial for victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in Kuala Lumpur.
MH17 crash
Pro-Russian separatists look at passengers' belongings at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
MH17 crash
A pro-Russian separatist holds a stuffed toy found at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
MH17 crash
A flower placed on wreckage is pictured at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
MH17 crash
A man blocks access to the scene of the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 as emergency personnel remove the bodies of passengers.

To figure out why a Malaysian jetliner fell from the sky, investigators will use the wreckage of any missile found to determine where it came from and who fired it, experts said on Friday (local time). That may be easier said than done in the middle of a war zone.

Investigators face formidable obstacles in deciphering a disaster scene spread over 20 square kilometres of contested ground in eastern Ukraine - amid a conflict in which both sides have interests that may outweigh a desire to uncover the truth.

"We are in a country that is at war, and that is in a war of communication," aviation analyst Gerard Feldzer said in Paris. "Everyone is pushing a pawn."

All 283 passengers and 15 crew members aboard the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight were killed in Thursday's crash. US authorities and aviation experts say the Boeing 777 was likely brought down by a ground-to-air missile, but so far there is no proof of who fired it. Ukraine and the insurgents blame each other.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said Washington believes the plane was likely downed by an SA-11 missile fired from an area controlled by pro-Russian separatists. She said Russia has provided SA-11s and other heavy weapons to the separatists.

The UN Security Council called for "a full, thorough and independent international investigation" into the downing of the plane, but that is a complicated proposition.

Under international civil aviation rules, Ukraine should take the lead in investigating an airline accident on its territory. Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine's interior minister, told The Associated Press that the investigation would be carried out by the Interior Ministry and the Security Services of Ukraine, who would work alongside international observers.

It was unclear what access either group would have to the crash site.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sent a team of international monitors to the site, a swathe of smoldering wreckage and body parts near Ukraine's border with Russia, but they later reported only limited access to the wreckage.

European Union officials said that Ukraine has first claim on the plane's two black boxes - a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder - which could contain valuable clues about what happened in the moments before the crash.

An assistant to the insurgency's military commander said that rebels had recovered multiple devices from the wreckage and were considering what to do with them, raising fears they could be headed to Moscow. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia had no intention of getting hold of the boxes, which he said should be given to the relevant international organisations. And insurgent leader Aleksandr Borodai later contradicted his colleague and said the rebels don't have them anyway.

Defence experts said the plane was likely shot down by a missile fired from a Buk system, Soviet-era equipment that is in the arsenals of both Russia and Ukraine. There was no previous evidence of separatist rebels using such missiles, though a rebel Twitter account boasted last month about seizing a Buk system from Ukrainian forces, and AP journalists saw such a system hours before the crash Thursday in rebel-held territory.

Feldzer, the air-accident expert, said investigators' goal would be to "find the debris of the missile in question and determine the trajectory." Once investigators reach the site, they should be able to discover whether the plane was hit by one or more missiles, and the size of the missile system involved.

But, he said, "that won't determine who did it," unless investigators can find a satellite photo or radar records of the missile.

Justin Bronk, a research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based military think tank, said the United States has sophisticated military satellites capable of detecting a missile launch, but might be unwilling to share its images in order to protect its secret surveillance capabilities.

"They will probably try to liaise with civilian satellite operators to see if there are any who also picked up the trail on infra-red sensors so that they can publicly release that data," he said.

The crash site is vast, and experts said rebel fighters may have removed key evidence in the chaotic hours after the disaster, as they joined emergency workers and local coal miners to comb the wreckage and recover the bodies.

Charles Heyman, editor of "Armed Forces of the EU," said missile casings could help establish who had supplied the weapons that brought down the plane. But he said it was likely that the rebels - if they fired the missile - would have removed any missile-casing debris from the scene.

Heyman said the missile launcher would bear ID numbers that could establish whether it was recently supplied by Russia or came from Ukrainian forces.

But he said if rebels mistakenly targeted a commercial airliner, thinking it was a Ukrainian military plane, they may have subsequently fled and taken the missile launcher into Russia.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry released video purporting to show exactly that: a truck carrying a Buk missile launcher with one of its four missiles apparently missing, rolling toward the Russian border. The ministry said the footage was captured by a police surveillance squad at dawn Friday. There was no way to independently verify that claim.

"If I was the rebel chief of staff, I'd have had it taken away, dismantled and blown up," Heyman said, "and then bury the pieces in a swamp."

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AP