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MH17 – two years later, part 2.

MH17 – two years later, part 2.
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This is the second part of the report Bellingcat “MH17 – The Open Source Investigation, Two Years Later”. First part you can see here: MH17 – two years later. Also you can see the third part: MH17 – two years later, part 3 and the fourth part: MH17 – two years later, part 4.

Another photograph appeared soon after,  showing the Buk missile launcher – now moving under its own power and without the Volvo truck – headed eastward in Snizhne.


Photograph of a Buk missile launcher in Snizhne on July 17 2014

This photograph originally appeared on VK and was shared by the pro-Ukrainian user @GirkinGirkin. A video shot soon after this photograph shows the Buk missile launcher moving southward out of Snizhne towards its eventual launch location.



Frame and detail from the video of a Buk missile launcher heading out of Snizhne on July 17 2014

These images of the Buk in Snizhne are corroborated by reports of a journalist from the Associated Press, who was in Snizhne on the day of the tragedy.

An Associated Press reporter on Thursday saw seven separatist-owned tanks parked at a gas station outside the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne. In the town, he also observed a Buk missile system, which can fire missiles up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet).
-Peter Leonard, Associated Press

The Missile Launch

Almost exactly three hours after the downing of MH17 the following photograph was posted on Twitter:


Original Twitter post showing the smoke photographed from Torez

The tweet from @WowihaY describes how a witness to the missile launch sent the photograph to him, showing the traces of a missile launch to the southeast of Torez. The
metadata of the photograph showed that it was taken at 4:25pm (five minutes after the shootdown), according to the camera’s internal clock, and 4:22pm through shadow
analysis. The blogger Ukraine@War (now khuilo@War) was able to geolocate the source of the missile trail in the photograph to a field just east of the village of Chervonyi Zhovten (Red October), and south of Snizhne. Bellingcat conducted a similar investigation, coming to similar conclusions: the missile was fired from a field south of Snizhne

Numerous witnesses have reported seeing or hearing a missile launch from south of Snizhne, further strengthening the evidence presented b y this photograph. In the resulting confusion of the plane’s downing, hundreds of messages popped up on VK, Twitter, and other social networks amongst witnesses of the events. Before the narratives of both the Russian/separatist and Ukrainian sides emerged, these raw reactions reveal unfiltered information about what had just occurred.

In one thread on VK, which began just 9 minutes after the shoot down, a witness says that “something buzzed above us, but not like a plane, people are saying that it was a rocket that
went up to it.” In another witness account, a man describes what could only be a rocket launch immediately before the downing of MH17. As he describes, “I saw that something was flying. I was out in the country in a tree, picking pears. And th en an explosion.” Another Snizhne resident posted soon after the crash, “I saw how this rocket flew! I even saw where
it came from and where it went!” In an extended conversation, two women who support the pro-Russian separatists in their cities talked about what they had seen. In one revealing
message, a local woman described:

I saw how a rocket flew from the direction of Saurovka…and then a minute-long lull and a loud explosion…a trail remained in the sky from the rocket…I didn’t see the explosion myself it was very loud…all of my family ran out into the street…we were all very scared…….I don’t know who to believe but we didn’t hear the sound of a SU[-25]….it was quiet just like with a normal passenger plane and then that’s all….

Though many separatists said that a Ukrainian fighter jet was responsible for the downing of MH17, at least one separatist betrayed this narrative in a VK message to the “News of
Snizhne” public group. Just 34 minutes after the downing, he wrote “Don’t write where they fired from if you don’t want them to bomb us.”

Witness accounts attesting to a rocket launch to the south of Snizhne, matching the photograph posted by @WowihaY, are not only found in postings on social networks. The group chat app Zello, popular in eastern Ukraine, gives dozens of instantaneous witness reactions to what had just happened after the Buk missile launch. Zello recordings are easily
archived and saved, allowing us to revisit these reactions from shared recordings. While many of these reactions do not contain useful information (“Guys a plane has crashed” … “Have they
caught the pilot?”), there are also unfiltered witness accounts that provide information regarding the missile launch. One witness reports seeing something near the KhimMash factory, located in the northern part of Snizhne : “something going upwards… like smoke, something like a smoke trail (…) as if some kind of a missile launch upwards.” Another witness reports something flying “from Saurivka” located just south of the Buk missile launch location. This witness reports that this object, which she thought was “a missile,” was “flying and smoking–with a white smoke–and had a strong buzzing loudly above Oktyabr’ flying (…) towards the town.” Clearly, there are a wealth of witness reports from immediately after the plane crash to corroborate the scene shown in the launch photograph. But what about the forensic evidence?

The Dutch RTL Nieuws contacted various forensic experts to verify the smoke photograph’s authenticity: the Fox-IT company, which focuses on cyber crime, and Eduard de Kam at the Dutch Institute of Digital Photography (NIDF). All of these consulted experts agreed on the same conclusion: there was “no indication of post-processing, fraud, or manipulation” in the
photograph that showed the traces of a missile launch. Additionally, two other organizations examined the photograph and determined the location of the launch site from the available
information, coming to the same conclusion as Bellingcat, Ukraine@War, and others.

Looking to the launch site itself, journalists Christopher Miller and Roland Oliphant visited the field south of Snizhne on July 22, 2014. The two found a burned field with various pieces
of debris, including a piece of plastic from a weapons container manufactured by StekloPlastik, which had its offices raided of approximately $25,000 worth of equipment by
separatist soldiers about three weeks before the downing of MH17. Christopher Miller spoke with a resident of Chervonyi Zhovten, the nearest village from the field, who said that he saw and heard a missile launch from the field immediately before the downin g of MH17.

“It was such a huge explosion,” the 58 -year-old said recently. “It felt like the end of the world!” The blast was the sound of a missile launcher, firing its weapon into the sky, he said. “It was a big missile and it wobbled as it flew right over our house in the direction of Torez,” he added, pointing in a northwesterly direction. He said he watched as the missile struck a plane and fiery debris fell to the ground.
-Christopher Miller, Mashable

Satellite imagery of the site Miller and Oliphant visited also reveals that between July 16, 2014
and July 21, 2014 the corner of the field they visited was significantly altered, and new track marks appeared in the area between those two dates.

Field south of Snizhne between July 16 and 23 (Source Google Earth/Digital Globe)

Field south of Snizhne between July 16 and 23 (Source Google Earth/Digital Globe)

On July 22, 2014, US intelligence officials published a black and white satellite map image depicting what they claimed to be the path of the Buk missile that downed MH17. Although the quality of the US imagery is poor, it was possible to identify the launch site shown. Using geographical landmarks in the US imagery, it was possible to identify the same landmarks in Google Earth satellite imagery, and from that determine the launch location. The image below shows origin point in the US imagery in relation to the field visited by Oliphant and Miller, which, again, is in line with the smoke in the photograph posted on Twitter.

 Identification of the origin point of the SBIRS data (top) with Google Earth (bottom)

Identification of the origin point of the SBIRS data (top) with Google Earth (bottom)

Approximate origin point of SBIRS data

Approximate origin point of SBIRS data

The Day After

On July 18, the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior published a video that was filmed in the separatist-controlled city of Luhansk, in which they claimed to show a Buk heading towards the Russian border on the morning of July 18. The Buk had three missiles, instead of the fou missiles a fully armed Buk usually carries, and as the Buk was photographed having in Makiivka, approximately five hours before the MH17 shootdown. Arsen Avakov, the Ukrainian Minister of Interior, later published the coordinates of where the video was recorded, which were confirmed both by geolocation and news organizations visiting the site, including 60 Minutes Australia and Correctiv.

Other than the Buk itself, the most obvious similarity to this video and the previous photographs and videos of the Buk in Ukraine is the white Volvo with red low-loader. This Volvo truck is hauling the Buk missile launcher in all of the sightings in eastern Ukraine on July 17, except after the Buk was unloaded in Snizhne. The truck can be recognized by the phone number on the red low-loader, the yellow Stroymekhanizatsiya elephant logo on the cabin, a blue stripe across the doors, and orange siren lights on top of the white cabin.

 Frame from the July 18 2014 Luhansk video

Frame from the July 18 2014 Luhansk video

 Comparison of the truck in the Donetsk Paris Match photographs (left) and Luhansk video (right)

Comparison of the truck in the Donetsk Paris Match photographs (left) and Luhansk video (right)

This Volvo was seized by separatists from the vehicle yard of Stroymekhanizatsiya, located in northern Donetsk. A 2013 video filmed in Crimea shows this same Volvo being used, including the same yellow placard with a phone number.

Soon after the downing of MH17, journalists contacted the owner of the truck, confirming that the vehicle that hauled the Buk is the same that was captured by separatists in Donetsk.

 Comparison of the truck filmed in 2013 (left) and photographed in Donetsk on July 17 2014 (right)

Comparison of the truck filmed in 2013 (left) and photographed in Donetsk on July 17 2014 (right)

My base in Donetsk was taken over and it was parked there. Yes, this is my vehicle. They came to our base and said they needed it. Everyone left from the eighth (of July), and the base was under their control, including my equipment and that white truck.

Satellite imagery from 11:08am on July 17, 2014

shows the low-loader was absent from the vehicle yard, supporting the fact that it was hauling the Buk through C at the time, while in imagery before and after July 17 the low-loader and truck was visible. If there is any remaining doubt that this truck that hauled the Buk on July 17

and 18 was under the control of pro-Russian separatists, there are also photographs and videos of the Volvo and red low-loader under separatist control in the latter half of 2014.

With all of this in mind, there is little doubt that the video filmed in Luhansk shows this same Volvo truck hauling a Buk missile launcher with only three, instead of four, missiles. Furthermore, we can establish that the route taken by the Volvo truck in this video was under the firm control of separatists. A July 15 convoy transporting Russian military equipment from Donetsk, Russia, through Krasnodon, to Luhansk, and eventually to Donetsk, Ukraine took that the Buk travelled on a route through Krasnodon on its way to Russia—mirroring the same route used on July 15. Lastly, both the July 15 convoy and July 18 Buk transport used the same route, Vulytsia Pavlivska-Nechuya Levytskoho, through Luhansk.

Truck seen on July 17 and 18 2014 photographed on August 6 2014

Truck seen on July 17 and 18 2014 photographed on August 6 2014

Origin of the Separatists’ Buk

After the downing of MH17 and the emergence of witness accounts, photographs, and videos of a Buk in eastern Ukraine, it became increasingly clear that a Buk-M1 missile launcher was used to down the passenger plane. Now, the more difficult, but equally important, question must be addressed: where did this Buk come from, and which country did it belong to?
After the downing of MH17 members of the Bellingcat investigative team started their search for military convoys that included Buk missile launchers in the month July 17 2014. After searching through numerous convoys in Ukraine and Russia, a particular Buk-M1 TELAR stood out, belonging to Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade. This Buk left from Kursk, Russia on June 23rd to near the Russia-Ukraine border, with the convoy last seen in Millerovo, Russia on June 25.

Markings on Buk 3x2 filmed in Russia in June 2014 (left) and markings from the Buk in the Donetsk Paris Match photographs (right)

Markings on Buk 3×2 filmed in Russia in June 2014 (left) and markings from the Buk in the Donetsk Paris Match photographs (right)

This Buk has many similarities with the one photographed and filmed in Ukraine on the day of the MH17 downing. This Buk seen in Russia was dubbed “3×2” due to an obscured number on the side of the vehicle. Since early investigations, we have been able to determine that this Buk was originally numbered 332 after comparing the various characteristics from photographs and videos going back to 2010. The remaining fragments of the numbers of the Buk seen in the Paris Match images, as well as the railway transport markings, center of gravity mark, white paint on the rubber side skirt, and other features were in the exact same positions.

 White mark on Buk 3x2 in Russia in June 2014 (left) and the white mark on the Buk filmed in Luhansk, Ukraine on July 18 2014

White mark on Buk 3×2 in Russia in June 2014 (left) and the white mark on the Buk filmed in Luhansk, Ukraine on July 18 2014

Additionally, the white paint mark on the rubber side skirt, which was visible on both sides of the Buk, was also seen in the July 18 video of the Buk being transported in Luhansk.

Outside of these marks being in the exact same locations on the two Buks, there is an additional, compelling method to compare the “identities” of the Buks. During our research into various Buk sightings, it became clear that the rubber side skirt above the caterpillar track sustain damage over time, creating a unique “fingerprint.” Comparing these side skirt damage patterns, or “fingerprints,” we can identify and match Buk missile launchers with one another. For example, below is a comparison of the side skirt fingerprints of a Russian Buk numbered 232. All three photographs were taken in the same year.

When comparing the side skirt profiles of Buk 332, the Russian Buk seen headed towards the Ukrainian border in late June, and the Buk photographed in eastern Ukraine on the day of the tragedy, there is a positive identification:

Side skirt comparison of Russian Buk 232 over a period of a year

Side skirt comparison of Russian Buk 232 over a period of a year

The strong “spike” in the waveform below the white marking (which reads “H-2200,” a code used for oversized railway cargo frequently found on Russian military equipment) can be identified by examining photographs of the Buk in Russia and Ukraine.

Posted 5 years ago
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