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MH17 – two years later.

MH17 – two years later.
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Bellingcat releases its latest report, “MH17 – The Open Source Investigation, Two Years Later”, bringing together two years of research by Bellingcat into the fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014. As part of this release Bellingcat communicated with experts in various fields for their analysis and opinions of MH17 related evidence. We publish the first part of the report Bellingcat. Also you can see the second part: MH17 – two years later, part 2, the third part: MH17 – two years later, part 3 and the fourth part: MH17 – two years later, part 4.


At 4:20pm local time on July 17, 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 (MH17) was shot from the sky over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew members. Within hours, the world became aware of the general circumstances that led to the tragedy: a group of proRussian separatists shot down the passenger plane with a Buk anti-aircraft missile. Two years later, we know that these facts still hold up. However, largely due to a wealth of openly accessible and verifiable information, these two years have also given us a tremendous
amount of evidence confirming this general set of circumstances, including the identity of the weapon that was used to shoot down MH17 and the Russian anti-aircraft missile brigade that
supplied this weapon.

This report will serve as a survey of the information related to the downing of MH17 that is freely available for anyone with an internet connection to access, analyze, and verify, also known as open source information. This information can be found anywhere from a newspaper to the social media account of a Russian or Ukrainian serviceman. What this report will not provide is information obtained through confidential or “closed” sources, such as non-public intelligence reports or secret interviews with witnesses or human sources. With an event as controversial and significant as the downing of MH17, it is vital that, to the greatest extent possible, information tied to the case is accessible by the public, and verifiable. Furthermore, in this report we have sought the opinions and assessments of subject matter experts regarding our analyses of open source information. Their analyses are presented throughout this report, providing an additional analytic perspective to the open source evidence.

Situation in the Donetsk Oblast, July 2014

The course of the war in eastern Ukraine turned on July 1 after a week -long ceasefire, with a renewed offensive from Ukrainian Forces. Most significantly, Ukraine retook the city of Sloviansk on July 5, which was previously seized by the infamous separatist commander Igor “Strelkov” Girkin. Many of the forces of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) retreated to Donetsk after fleeing Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, and other cities in the northern part of the oblast. In anticipation of a Ukrainian offensive into the separatist stronghold, separatist forces destroyed numerous bridges and blocked a series of strategic roads leading into Donetsk.

On July 14, 2014, soldiers of the Russian Federation launched a devastating artillery attack against Ukrainian army positions near Amvrosiivka, Ukraine. This attack, which can be
observed in at least 330 craters visible on Google Earth imagery from July 16, 2014, was launched from a position inside Russia near the Russian village of Seleznev, approximately 750 meters from the Russia-Ukraine border. Two days later, on July 16, numerous videos surfaced of 122mm BM-21 Grad systems launching artillery attacks westward, towards Ukraine, from the Russian city of Gukovo. For the first time, the Russian military was launching direct artillery attacks from their own territory, with their own equipment, and with their own soldiers, against the Ukrainian military.

With the gains of the Ukrainian ground forces and counter-attack of Russian artillery systems, Russia and the separatist forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic also needed to deal with
the Ukrainian air offensives in separatist -held territory. On July 15, a Ukrainian warplane hit a residential building in Snizhne, killing eleven civilians and injuring another eight. Ukraine blamed Russia for this attack, but there is no evidence lending credence to this accusation. The Ukrainian military carried out numerous other attacks in the week before the downing of MH17 in both the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, but separatists also made numerous successful attacks against military jets and transporters.


Twitter post reporting the sighting of an anti-aircraft missile

On July 14, a Ukrainian AN-26 transport plane was shot down near the Russia-Ukraine border in Izvaryne. The exact cause of this shoot down is not entirely clear, and some parties claimed
it was flying beyond the range of shoulder launched Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) known to be in possession of separatist forces, implying it was shot down by a
larger air defence system. On July 16, a Ukrainian Su -25 ground attack jet was shot down in the Donetsk Oblast, while another was damaged, but not destroyed. Video footage from July
16 near Stepanivka, just a few kilometers from the eventual launch site of the missile that downed MH17, shows separatist leaders Aleksandr Borodai and Igor Girkin next to a Strela -10 anti-aircraft system.

Clearly, a concerted effort was being made to control the skies in the Donetsk Oblast, with the presence and likely use of a Strela-10 system along with MANPADS. With the escalation of Russian involvement with direct artillery strikes and the prioritized effort to neutralize Ukrainian air power, Russia’s decision to provide a powerful Buk-M1 anti-aircraft missile system to separatist forces is entirely logical.

Tracking the Buk on July 17

For six hours before the downing of MH17, Ukrainians publicly discussed a Buk missile launcher slowly creeping thr ough eastern Ukraine, before it was eventually filmed heading
south out of the town of Snizhne, towards the center of the location where the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) would calculate a missile launch occurred.

An example of these messages can be seen below, from the Twitter account @666_mancer. In the message below, the visible time — circled in red — is set for the local time zone (GMT
+3). In the message, the user says that thirty minutes ago (thus, around 9:40am), some sort of anti-aircraft system, possibly a Strela-10, was seen near Prospekt Ilicha in Donetsk.

More detailed and reliable witness accounts continued to appear throughout the day. At 10:40am local time, a public group called “Donetsk is Ukraine!” in the Russian -language
social network VKontakte (VK) posted a more detailed witness account:

Bad news. Around 9am, a hauler was going along the Makiivka highway from Makiivka in the direction of Donetsk. On the platform was a BukM1-M2? This AAMS proceeded to the intersection with Shakhtostroiteley Boulevard. The system was accompanied by a convoy that was composed of 1 grey Rav4 SUV, a camouflaged UAZ, and a dark blue Hyundai van with tinted windows. As of 9:15am, the vehicle was located at the intersection of Shakhtostroiteley and Ilycha. The militants got out of their cars, blocking 2 of the far left lanes. Obviously, they were waiting for logistical guidance.


Post public group called “Donetsk is Ukraine!”

The French tabloid magazine Paris Match has shared two images showing the Buk in Donetsk. In the first image, a gray 2010 To yota RAV4—matching the witness account from the “Donetsk is Ukraine!” VK group—is seen ahead of a Volvo truck hauling a Buk -M1 TELAR (Transporter Erector Launcher and Radar). In the second image, various details of the Buk missile launcher are clearer, including the netting above the four mounted missiles.


The first Paris Match photograph from Donetsk


The second Paris Match photograph from Donetsk

The exact time that these images were captured is unclear, but were certainly taken between 9:30am and 11:00am. Paris Match stated that the photograph was taken “about 11am” on the morning of July 17th. There is far less uncertainty about the location of the images. The visible landmarks in the photograph reveal the exact location of the Volvo truck and Buk as near the Motel roundabout in eastern Donetsk.

On May 3, 2016 a video was posted online showing the same Volvo truck transporting the Buk missile launcher in Makiivka, east of the previous sighting in Donetsk.

On June 22, 2016, Google published satellite imagery from Digital Globe of the area captured on July 17th 2014, showing the truck moving through Makiivka close to the location shown in the video. Based on information from Digital Globe, the satellite image was captured at 11:08am local time.

Notably, in addition to the truck and Buk, the Makiivka video also features other vehicles that appear to be in convoy with the truck, including a grey Rav4 SUV and a
camouflaged UAZ, as described in the 10:40am post in the “Donetsk is Ukraine!” group. In addition to those vehicles, a black or dark blue Volkswagen van was also present, and all three vehicles featured in a video of another separatist convoy, this time transporting military equipment to Donetsk from Luhansk, filmed on July 15th.


Frame from the video of the Buk missile launcher transported through Makiivka


Positions of vehicles in the Makiivka video from satellite imagery dated July 17 2014 (Source – Google Earth/Digital Globe)


Comparison of vehicles in July 15 and 17 convoys


Twitter post containing the Zuhres Buk video

The next confirmed sighting of the Buk was in the town of Zuhres, located approximately 25 kilometers east of the location in Makiivka where the missile launcher was previously seen.
The Buk was filmed traveling east on H21, a highway running from Donetsk, through Makiivka, Khartsyz’k, and eventually to Torez and Snizhne. A Twitter user named @3Andryu created a YouTube account, uploaded a video of the Buk passing by, and tweeted a link of the video. This user, who later deleted his Twitter account, often publicly shared the
movements of separatist armour through Zuhres. Thus, he is likely a resident of Zuhres and almost certainly filmed the video himself or acquired it from another resident and posted it. The user included the exact coordinates and time of the video, with the location being confirmed as correct b y numerous journalists, including teams from ARD TV,
Correctiv, and 60 Minutes Australia.

As the Buk moved eastward, it crossed into more heavily populated areas, thus significantly increasing public chatter and the number of witness accounts. The witness accounts alone do not confirm the Buk’s presence, but these reports do provide an extra layer of evidence to the photographs, satellite images, and videos of the Buk’s presence in eastern Ukraine on the day of the downing.

With the Ukrainian conflict came the seemingly new phenomenon of pro-Ukrainian Twitter users who share information received from occupied areas of eastern Ukraine. Richard Pendry, Lecturer in Broadcast Journalism at the University of Kent, recently travelled to Ukraine to study this phenomenon. He weighs in on the reliability of these sources and the nature of this type of information warfare.


Richard Pendry

In September 2015 I went to Ukraine to find some of the sources behind the Twitter handles and other pseudonyms figuring in Bellingcat investigations, including MH17. I wanted to understand who these people are and what motivates them. After speaking to a number of sources I would say they can be classified into the following categories, whose membership somewhat overlaps:

1. Civilians with friends and family who are trapped inside the occupied areas, that provide practical information to keep their friends and loved ones safe.
2. Patriotic individuals who have set up online translation ventures on their own initiative to expose what they see as Russian wrongdoing.
3. Individuals who are hoping to promote themselves as patriots while advancing their own political and financial advantage. (In one case, a blogger-politician confessed he used his large Facebook following to pressure the state to fund a defence contract; in another, a source turned out to be seeking funding for a military operation.)
4. Individuals who want to help the military and security agencies target Russian and separatist forces.

All the people I met work as what might be termed ‘local aggregators’. It is dangerous to livetweet sensitive information directly from the battlefield, and no one I met did this. So while the aggregators’ Twitter profiles may be linked to battlefield locations, as a rule they are not located where they say they are. It’s unreasonable to expect people from a war zone to be impartial about events there — and they aren’t. These patriotic and deeply involved individuals gather, process, and deliver information to news audiences in an extremely chaotic and decentralised fashion. This is utterly unlike the well-organised Russian propaganda operation. To sum up: the Bellingcat sources have very mixed agendas. It is understandable that these people act out of complex motives. While we cannot change this, it is important for the wider audience that anyone dealing with them be as transparent as possible in order to evaluate the quality of the information presented. Often the transparency is missing and outsiders can make mistakes with information from sources because the latter’s agendas are not clear. That said, I found no evidence that any aspects of Bellingcat stories whose sources I studied are untrue.

The sightings of the Buk continued after it entered Torez. At 12:07pm, @WowihaY passed on a message that he had received:


Tweet reporting a sighting of a Buk missile launcher

A surface-to-air launcher just passed us in the direction of the city center. 4 rockets, people are saying that it’s a Buk #stopterror #torez in the direction of #snizhne.

A tweet from 12:26pm reported almost the exact same scene, timed at 12:10pm in Torez. The same user later followed up with another tweet, saying that the Buk was covered up top, mirroring the covering seen in the second Paris Match image from the morning in Donetsk and the video of the Buk in Makiivka.


Tweet reporting a sighting of a Buk missile launcher

At 12:05pm I received a text “Birdies, beware!” from a person who was well-versed in weaponry. He suggested that they were transporting a “Buk” anti-aircraft missile system.

They hauled a rocket complex on a low-loader escorted by two vehicles through Torez towards Snizhne at 12:10pm

Like in Donetsk, the scene that was being described by local residents was also captured in an image. The photo appeared on VK, and though the original post disappeared, the image was saved and reposted frequently on July 17. This photograph, located outside of the StroiDom hardware store in Torez, Ukraine, shows the same Buk missile launcher on the Volvo truck previously seen in the Paris Match images, Makiivka video, and Zuhres video. As with the Zuhres video, the location was confirmed by journalists from ARD TV, Correctiv, and 60 Minutes Australia. Additionally, journalists from the Guardian and Buzzfeed visited the location just days after the downing of MH17 and were able to confirm with locals that a Buk missile launcher traveled through this location just after noon on July 17.


Photograph of a Buk missile launcher transported through Torez on July 17 2014

We were inside and heard a noise much louder than usual,” said one shopkeeper, who did not want to be identified. “We came running out and saw a jeep disappearing into the distance with something much larger in front of it. Later, customers said it had been a missile carrier.” In another shop further down the street, there was talk of a convoy of two jeeps and a missile launcher covered in a net driving past in the direction of the town of Snizhne. “I’ve nev er seen anything like it,” said a middle-aged woman. She said her husband showed her a photograph of a Buk launcher afterwards and she realised that was indeed what she had seen. A group of men also said they had seen a Buk.

-Shaun Walker, The Guardian

Posted 5 years ago
Category: News

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