Investigations

At MH17 Crash Site, More Signs of Tampering


The crash site of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, in a field near the village of Grabove, in the Donetsk region, on July 23

Photograph by Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

The crash site of the downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, in a field near the village of Grabove, in the Donetsk region, on July 23

Six days after the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, the tempo of violence is unabated in Ukraine. Today, rebels shot two Ukrainian Air Force Su-25 fighter planes out of the sky near the village of Dmytrivka, 20 miles south of the MH17 crash site. A Ukrainian national security spokesman claimed that preliminary assessment by “experts” had concluded that the planes were hit at an altitude of 17,000 ft. by “anti-aircraft missiles launched from Russia.” Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army’s shelling of civilian areas continues around the edges of the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk.

The MH17 site lies near the border of Lugansk and Donetsk, deep in rebel territory and near the Russian border. The debris field is wide, covering dozens of square kilometers. A visit to the area on Tuesday showed both progress and frustration over continuing tampering with evidence on the ground.

On July 22, a light breeze swept through the faded gold wheat field where a section of fuselage and the tail of MH17 lay. Dark clouds threatened and then poured raindrops on the scene of the crash that killed all 298 passengers and crew. Two rebels standing on a low knoll stood guard over the scene, both impoverished coalminers armed with well-oiled Soviet SKS carbines made in the 1950s.

Along the road to the nearby village of Grabova were bunches of flowers; a votive candle had been placed on a piece of luggage pallet. Between the main crash site and the village an old cross read “Save Us and Protect Us.” Aging women wearing brightly colored scarves and dresses walked home to the cluster of houses after attending a mass for the dead. They were still talking about how frightened they were when the aircraft exploded and fell to the ground.

In the afternoon, monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) rolled up in a convoy of around a dozen white, armored SUVs, escorted by a team of a half-dozen rebels in camouflage. Among the visitors were three Malaysian aviation experts. A large pack of reporters was held at bay by such rebels as Aleksandr—who refused to give his last name—who had a Russian-made RPG slung over his shoulder. He and his comrades allowed the Malaysian experts to walk to the tail section of the plane and take pictures with small digital cameras. The men worked for about a half hour.

“Major pieces, I’m looking at the tailfin … they do look different than when we first saw them, in that they have been cut into,” said OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw at the site. “One main cone section has been almost split in half.” He added, “The time has come for professionals to be here and do the analysis.” The OSCE had earlier helped a group of Ukrainian experts access the site, as well as a Dutch forensic group on July 21.

Europeans, Australians, and North Americans were outraged at reports that international aviation experts were initially barred from the scene. There was anger as well that the plane’s black boxes were used as political bargaining chips. The black boxes were turned over and progress has been made in recovering and removing the bodies.

After pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin from the West, the human remains were transferred to the city of Kharkiv, which is controlled by Ukraine’s government, and moved on to Holland on July 23. “To my dying day, I will not understand that it took so much time for the rescue workers to be allowed to do their difficult jobs and that human remains could be used in a political game,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans when he addressed the UN Security Council on Monday. “It is despicable.”

Wendle is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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