A team of Dutch police and military investigators were deployed last month to Ukraine's Donetsk region to examine cellphone towers and communications data believed to show that Russia-backed militants claimed to have shot down the plane in the mistaken belief it was a Ukrainian military transport.
The investigators, who were barred by separatist gunmen from accessing the telecom venues, had been searching for evidence to back Ukrainian government claims that they had intercepted communications from a Russian mercenary then in command of local militant forces.
Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov — the Shooter — had boasted on a social media website of downing a plane flying at high altitude minutes after the Malaysia Boeing 777 exploded at 4:20 p.m. on July 17, 2014, and rained debris and corpses over idyllic sunflower fields in rebel-held territory.
A Chicago-area lawyer filed suit against Girkin this week on behalf of the families of 17 victims, alleging conspiracy between the Russian special forces veteran and Kremlin officials accused by the West of instigating the war between the Ukrainian government and the separatists.
"We are alleging that Girkin, as supreme commander of special units, conspired to order the shootdown of Malaysia 17," Floyd Wisner, who specializes in aviation litigation, said Thursday in a telephone interview.
His lawsuit, led by a South African woman whose late husband's ticket was purchased for him by a U.S. employer, has standing in U.S. courts, Wisner said, under the Torture Victims Protection Act.
"We also allege that Girkin acted with either the actual, expressed, tacit or implied authority of the Russian government," Wisner said.
Russian officials, who deny any role in the Ukraine war or the Malaysian jet disaster, have also signaled their intent to scuttle a proposal by Malaysia to establish a United Nations criminal tribunal to prosecute those eventually identified as responsible for shooting down the airliner.
Russia, which holds veto power at the U.N. Security Council, considers a criminal investigation "ill-timed and counterproductive," Deputy Foreign Ministry Gennady Gatilov said of the proposed war crime court.
Formal determination of the cause of the disaster isn't expected to be disclosed until October, as the draft version of a Dutch-led investigation report was only recently distributed to government officials in the countries involved in the inquiry —Ukraine, Russia, Malaysia, Australia and the Netherlands — for comment and proposed revision.
But CNN reported Thursday that two sources who have seen the report said it attributes the plane's destruction to a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile launcher fired from rebel-held territory.
The investigators also reportedly noted that Malaysia Airlines, which suffered the loss of another Boeing jetliner four months earlier when MH-370 went missing over the Indian Ocean, had failed to heed advice from other international air carriers that pilots steer clear of eastern Ukraine, where several Ukrainian government aircraft had been downed after the separatist rebellion began in April 2014.
The militants in eastern Ukraine contend they are aiming to join their seized territory to Russia, as Ukraine's Crimea peninsula was annexed last year.
Russian officials have distanced themselves from the annexation claims, deeming the separatists' action a civil war arising from mistreatment of the Russian minority by the Ukrainian government in Kiev.
The Dutch Safety Board, which is leading the international investigation, issued a preliminary report nine months ago in which the plane was said to have been in contact with air traffic control only minutes before its destruction.
That report said the plane did not issued a distress signal before it disappeared from radar after being struck by "high-energy objects from outside the aircraft," consistent with being struck by a missile as it flew at an altitude of 33,000 feet.
Investigators from the Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia were dispatched to the crash site near the village of Hrabove hours after the tragedy but were blocked by armed separatists for nearly two weeks, hampering the forensic specialists' ability to document the debris field and collect the bodies of victims.
Most of the remains that were relatively intact were removed from the crash site by gunmen and stored in makeshift morgues.
The rest, left lying in the scorching heat, were badly decomposed by the time the international investigators were able to reach them in early August.
"The integrity of the site has been compromised," Malaysian Transportation Minister Liow Tiong Lai complained of the militants' disruption of the crash site, noting that gunmen had gone through victims' belongings as well as disturbed wreckage and other evidence.
After investigators recorded what was left of the crash scene, they removed the remaining bodies and aircraft remnants.
A forensic laboratory was set up at a Dutch military base and all but a few victims were identified and their remains released to families.
The anniversary Friday of the disaster that struck the flight en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur occasioned reflection on its unanswered questions and pledges from leaders of the countries from which most victims hailed to see the perpetrators identified and punished.
Moments of silence and solemn memorials in the home countries of the largest number of victims stirred anger and sadness among the families of the 196 Dutch victims, the 42 from Malaysia, including the 15-person crew, and 39 Australians headed home from European vacations or on their way to an international conference in Melbourne on the global fight against HIV/AIDS.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott called his nation's lawmakers back to Canberra for the commemoration Friday in Parliament, vowing to "continue to support families who deal with the pain of loss and who have a deep yearning for justice."
Source: Los Angeles Times