GILZE-RIJEN, Netherlands: Investigators concluded Tuesday that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile fired over war-torn Ukraine, but 15 months after the disaster Russia and the West remain locked in a bitter blame game.
The Dutch-led inquiry did not identify who launched the missile that crashed into the Boeing 777 on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 people on board.
But Russia, Ukraine and Western nations all seized the moment to step up accusations that the fault for the tragedy lay at someone else’s door.
“Flight MH17 crashed as a result of the detonation of a warhead outside the airplane against the left-hand side of the cockpit,” the chairman of the Dutch Safety Board, Tjibbe Joustra, told a press conference.
“This warhead fits the kind of missile that is installed in the BUK surface-to-air missile system.”
The inquiry delineated a 320-square-kilometer (120 square mile) area in eastern Ukraine from which the missile must have been fired.
And while the report did not specify whether it was under the control of pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian forces, the board’s chairman Joustra later seemed to suggest it was.
“It’s an area where the borders have fluctuated a lot, but it’s a territory where the pro-Russian rebels have laid down the law,” he told Dutch media after briefing lawmakers.
The much-anticipated report also said it was possible that some on board the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur may have remained conscious during the 90 seconds it took to crash.
The White House, which has long accused pro-Russian rebels of being behind the attack, said its “assessment is unchanged — MH17 was shot down by a surface-to-air missile fired from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.”
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told Agence France-Presse the report was a “step closer to the truth” and “undermines completely the conspiracy theories that Russia has trying to put around since this appalling act.”
But Moscow reacted angrily saying it had “serious doubts” about the goal of an investigation conducted in the Netherlands, adding it was merely “a justification of accusations that were put forward before.”
Hundreds of people, who attended the release of the report at a Dutch air base, were confronted with the eerie reconstruction of the plane’s cockpit, composed of recovered wreckage.
Standing in front of the reconstruction, Joustra also hit out at Kiev for not shutting down the airspace above the conflict zone.
On the day that MH17 was blown out of the skies, some 160 commercial flights overflew the area, the inquiry said.
“There was sufficient reason for the Ukrainian authorities to close the air space above the eastern part of their country,” Joustra said.
Kiev hit back however that such a conclusion was “groundless” as it had been in the process of “gradually closing all sky corridors of an altitude of 9,750 meters and less.”
Relatives were visibly shaken after first being privately briefed by Joustra in The Hague.
“They showed us the fragments that were inside the plane,” Oehlers said, adding in the room “it was so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop.”
The downing of MH17 threw the global spotlight back on the uprising in eastern Ukraine and was followed by a toughening of Western sanctions against Russia.
Tuesday’s findings were swiftly dismissed by the missile maker Almaz-Antey, which said its tests showed the jet being likely shot down by an outdated version of the BUK missile no longer used by Russia.
Nick de Larrinaga, Europe Editor for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, queried that argument, telling AFP: “This is not borne out by the evidence, which shows they remained in Russian service and in Russian military stockpiles at the time of the shootdown.”
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk wasted no time in pointing the finger at Russia.
“I personally have no doubt that this was a planned operation of the Russian special services aimed at downing a civilian aircraft,” Yatsenyuk told a cabinet meeting.
The Dutch report makes 11 recommendations, aiming to improve safety for civilian aircraft.
They include that countries involved in a conflict should close their air space in a timely manner, and that stricter rules should be applied by international aviation bodies.
But it has stressed its mandate was not to determine who pulled the trigger, amid a separate criminal probe by Dutch prosecutors.
Malaysia vowed it would seek the prosecution of the “trigger happy criminals” who downed the flight, the second aviation tragedy for the country after the mysterious disappearance of flight MH370 in March 2014.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte meanwhile called on Russia to cooperate in the criminal investigation, adding “the priority now is to find and pursue those who are responsible.”
Relative Pierre Chardom, who lost his 51-year-old brother in the disaster, told AFP he felt had some “closure on all the uncertainty which I had had until now.”