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MH17 Pierced By ‘High-Energy Objects,’ Investigators Into Crash Find

By Dpa Correspondents, dpa

AMSTERDAM — Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 broke up in the air probably after being hit “by a large number of high-energy objects,” a preliminary Dutch report on the crash showed on Tuesday.
Images of the MH17 wreckage show that it was pierced in numerous places from the outside, causing the Boeing 777 to break up in flight July 17 over eastern Ukraine, the report said.

The Dutch Safety Board, which is leading the multination investigation, said it found no evidence that the crash resulted from a technical problem or crew error.

The report did not assign blame for the crash, but the United States and Ukraine accuse pro-Russian separatist rebels of downing the jet with a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile system.

The MH17 damage outlined by the investigators would be consistent with a strike from a missile from a Buk system, which detonate before hitting a target to maximize damage and improve the missile’s chances of destroying it.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the report backed his country’s view that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile and called on the international community to find and punish the perpetrators of the attack.

Separatist rebels said, however, that the Dutch crash report confirmed their conviction that Ukraine shot down the airliner.

“It is obvious that this was a provocation carried out by the Ukrainian armed forces to discredit Russia and the insurgency,” separatist commander Miroslav Rudenko told Russia’s Interfax news agency from the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

All 298 people on board the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were killed. A majority of the passengers were Dutch.

The Dutch Safety Board has not had access to the crash site, which is in an area that has seen fighting between Ukraine government forces and the rebels. It relied on photographs taken during short visits to the site by Ukrainian and Malaysian investigators, data from MH17’s cockpit voice and flight data recorders, air traffic control communications, satellite images, and radar information to issue its preliminary findings.

“The initial results of the investigation point towards an external cause of the MH17 crash,” said Tjibbe Joustra, chairman of the Dutch Safety Board. “More research will be necessary to determine the cause with greater precision.”

The board said it expected to release a final report by the first anniversary of the crash.

It said it plans to visit the crash site if it is safe to do so, and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak demanded that investigators be allowed to return.

The plane crashed near Hrabove village in the Donetsk region, an area controlled by the rebels, who restricted investigators’ access to the site.

“It is of the utmost importance that the investigation teams gain full and unfettered access to the crash site in order to recover all human remains, complete their investigation, and establish the truth,” Najib said.

However, his defense minister, Hishammudddin Hussein, said the crash site is “currently volatile and inaccessible” after meeting Tuesday with senior military officials in Kiev.

Malaysia was among the nations contributing to the investigation. They also include Ukraine, Australia, Russia, Britain, and the United States.

The initial inquiry found the plane “broke up in the air probably as the result of structural damage caused by a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside.”

The jet’s black boxes and its communications with air traffic controllers showed no emergency or technical problems but that the flight was operating normally until “it ended abruptly.”

The investigators said they believe the damage the plane sustained caused it to break up in-flight because its wreckage was scattered over a large area. Its communications with air traffic control also suddenly halted, it disappeared from radar, and the recording of data on its black boxes ended abruptly, the report said.

Before the report was issued, the remains of two more Malaysian victims of the crash were returned Tuesday to Kuala Lumpur, Najib said.

So far, 34 bodies of the 43 Malaysian victims have been repatriated from Amsterdam, where all the bodies were being examined by international forensics experts.

The other victims were 193 Dutch nationals, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, 10 Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos, a Canadian, and a New Zealander.

AFP Photo/Genya Savilov

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Fears Over Russian Troop Increase At Ukraine Border

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) – Fears that Russia was massing troops on Ukraine’s border grew on Wednesday ahead of a visit by NATO’s secretary general, as an air strike hit the main eastern city where Kiev troops are besieging rebels.

NATO and Poland both warned that Russia may be gearing up to invade its former Soviet neighbor, despite strong denials from Moscow.

The first air strike on rebel-held bastion Donetsk came as Ukrainian forces said they were preparing to liberate the city, although they also reported their highest death toll in weeks in the face of fierce rebel bombardments.

On Wednesday, NATO warned that Russia had increased the number of “combat-ready” troops on its border with Ukraine to 20,000 from 12,000 in mid-July.

“This is a dangerous situation,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said, warning that “Russia could use the pretext of a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission as an excuse to send troops into eastern Ukraine.”

Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk said “the threat of a direct intervention (by Russia into Ukraine) is certainly greater than it was even a few days ago.”

Moscow said those making the claims about their troop movements were “selling soap bubbles”.

“Movements of such forces of thousands of troops and equipment are not possible in such a short time,” said Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenikov.

Against this backdrop, Kiev said NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen will visit on Thursday at the invitation of President Petro Poroshenko.

The visit is meant to discuss NATO-Ukraine partnership but Rasmussen has also ratcheted up the rhetoric lately, saying in an interview on Sunday that NATO would draw up new defence plans in the face of “Russia’s aggression”.

The West accuses Russia of supporting and instigating the insurgency in eastern Ukraine, sending tensions with Moscow soaring to their highest point since the Cold War.

The U.S. and European Union have slapped a range of tough sanctions on Moscow, with Switzerland, Japan and Canada following suit, potentially pushing Russia’s fragile economy towards recession.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin struck back on Wednesday with import bans and restrictions on agricultural products from countries that have targeted Moscow.

Although Moscow has already halted some food imports from a number of European countries, it had previously denied these measures were linked to the conflict.

Russia generally imports a third of its food from abroad, according to state statistics. The list of products to be banned was being drawn up, a government spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, fighting continued to rage on Wednesday in Ukraine’s industrial east, where the main rebel-city of Donetsk was hit by its first air strike since Ukrainian forces heavily bombarded the airport in May.

Kiev denied it was behind the early morning strike, which caused damage but no casualties.

Ukraine’s military has made major advances over the past month and says it has almost cut off Donetsk from the Russian border and second rebel bastion of Lugansk.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Ukrainian operation in the east told AFP that “the noose is tightening” around remaining rebel bastions and that government forces were preparing for their “liberation”.

The military also reported that 18 soldiers had been killed and 54 injured in fighting over the past 24 hours, the highest daily toll in weeks.

Some 1,300 people have been killed since April, according to the UN.

Civilians have been hit hardest, with over 285,000 fleeing their homes over the past few months, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which warned of “a massive exodus” if fighting intensifies.

Local authorities in Lugansk said there was still no power, running water, phone connections or fuel on Wednesday, while food supplies were running low and rubbish disposal was becoming a growing concern.

At the UN in New York the previous day, Russia’s representative deplored the “disastrous” humanitarian situation in east Ukraine and called for “immediate action” to help the population.

Kiev quickly dismissed the offer.

“The ‘peacekeeping contingent’ that has stood at the Ukrainian-Russian border for more than five months, is hardly peacekeeping. Its intervention will be considered a direct attack,” a spokesman for Poroshenko said.

Tensions soared following the July 17 downing of Malaysian flight MH17. The US accuses the rebels of attacking the jet with a missile supplied by Russia.

International investigators have been combing the vast crash site for clues and body parts over the past week. They again had to break off their work early on Wednesday due to shooting in the area, Ukraine’s government said.

Dutch police leading the mission appealed to the local population for further help in recovering remains and belongings of the 298 victims of the downed flight.

AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff

EU Readies New Russia Sanctions As Fighting Blocks MH17 Probe

Brussels (AFP) – The EU was set to approve punishing sanctions against Russia Tuesday over its role in the Ukraine crisis, as fighting in the strife-torn east again prevented international experts from reaching the crash site of Malaysian flight MH17.

For the third day running, an unarmed team of Dutch and Australian police ditched plans to travel to the scene of the disaster as “there is currently too much fighting on and around the road to the crash site,” said the Netherlands’ justice ministry.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country is leading the probe into a disaster that killed 193 of its citizens, called Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko to ask him to call off the fighting blocking access to the zone.

“We want to get to the crash site as quickly as possible to get the victims and bring them home,” a Dutch government spokesman said.

But the Ukrainian military denied it was carrying out hostilities near the vast MH17 site, where the remains of some of the 298 victims still lie 12 days on.

Instead, the army said “pockets of insurgents are continuing to fire on Ukrainian positions from the towns of Snizhne, Torez and Shakhtarsk,” all within about 30 kilometers (18 miles) of the site.

The fighting came a day after rebels claimed Kiev had regained control over part of the site.

Kiev also denied this, with its military spokesman Andriy Lysenko saying the rebels were still in control.

Amid the chaos, Dutch authorities warned the remains of some victims may never be recovered.

“I believe the chances are not very good,” Dutch police chief Gerard Bouman told parliament.

Witnesses have uploaded 150 photos and videos to a Dutch police server set up to help piece together the downing of flight MH17, a spokeswoman said.

The police issued an online appeal for images of the crash site — before, during and after — to aid a reconstruction of events.

Kiev said on Monday that data from the doomed plane’s black boxes showed the crash was caused by shrapnel from a rocket explosion.

The information from the flight recorders was decrypted in Britain after pro-Russian rebels handed them to Malaysian officials.

UN rights chief Navi Pillay condemned the plane’s downing as a possible war crime and demanded a full and independent investigation.

The Red Cross has said Ukraine is now in civil war — a classification that would make parties in the conflict liable to prosecution for war crimes.

More than 1,100 people have been killed in the fighting has engulfed eastern Ukraine over the past three months, the United Nations said, a toll that does not include the plane crash victims.

The insurgents launched their bloody bid to join Russia as Kiev veered decisively towards the West after deposing pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February.

They swiftly overran vast swathes of the mainly Russian-speaking eastern industrial heartland in April but government forces have begun to regain ground, with key city Slavyansk recaptured early this month.

Heavy fighting is ongoing in another rebel stronghold Lugansk, with local authorities reporting five people killed and eight wounded due to “constant firing” on the town over the past 24 hours.

Donetsk, the biggest rebel-held city in the region with about a million in population, has also been subjected to heavy pounding.

AFP journalists said three loud explosions were heard on Tuesday, sending Dutch and Australian police officers who were sitting outside on their hotel terrace, running for cover inside.

The military meanwhile reported 10 soldiers killed and 55 injured in clashes over the past few days.

Western powers meanwhile are moving to tighten the screws on Russia, which they blame for fanning the rebellion by supplying it with weapons.

Envoys from the bloc’s 28 states meeting in Brussels are expected to widen sanctions by approving sector-wide embargoes in four key areas: access to capital markets, defense, dual-use goods and sensitive technologies, including in the energy sector.

The sanctions are likely to sink Russia — which posted zero growth in the second quarter after a first-quarter contraction — into recession.

Washington, which believes Russia supplied the missile system used to attack MH17, has also released photographs to bolster a claim that Moscow was taking a direct role in the conflict by firing into Ukraine.

Russia has denied the Western accusations, while rebel commander Igor Strelkov has also said his side had nothing to do with the MH17 disaster.

“I don’t know how the plane was downed, by what means. I only know that it was downed and that’s it. The only thing I can say is that my men did not down it,” said Strelkov.

AFP Photo/Dominique Faget

European Allies No Help In Dealing With Putin

Even if it accomplishes nothing else, calling Vladimir Putin nasty names makes us feel a little better. Thug, megalomaniac, liar, war criminal, mass murderer — those are just the printable ones.

If only the Russian president cared what the rest of the world says (or thinks) about him. He doesn’t, and why should he?

Among global leaders, only President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott have expressed anything that resembles outrage over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.

Even in the Netherlands, which lost more than 150 citizens on that plane, the government continues referring to the missile strike as an aviation “disaster” instead of the reckless massacre it was.

All across Europe, the politicians in power have stated their obligatory shock and dismay, but there’s scant enthusiasm for enacting the sort of economic sanctions against Moscow that the United States initiated months ago.

Foreign ministers who gathered last week in Brussels composed a wish list of prominent Russian individuals and companies for possible trade and banking restrictions, yet no action was taken.

At this point it’s clear that the missile system used against the Malaysian aircraft was supplied by Russia, and that those who fired it were — if not Russians themselves — trained and coached by experts from that country.

Intercepted communications from the self-proclaimed separatists suggest that the shoot-down was a horrible screw-up, that the yahoos who had control of the missile launcher believed they were shooting at a Ukrainian military aircraft.

That doesn’t mean Putin’s hands are blood-free. But instead of apologizing to the families for Russia’s role in the tragedy, he continues to blame the Ukraine military and refuses to concede that the antiaircraft missile was one of his.

Lies and disinformation are exactly what you’d expect from an ex-KGB guy. What’s surprising is the limp response on the European continent, where it’s all about money and oil. Putin literally has much of the Western leadership over a barrel.

Russian investors now own such a large chunk of London that Great Britain is, despite Cameron’s condemnation of the missile attack, unlikely to make any serious moves against the Putin government.

Meanwhile, across the English Channel, France is moving briskly on schedule to complete construction of two helicopter-bearing ships for the Russian military, and says the downing of Flight 17 will not delay (or make it reconsider) the delivery.

“The Russians have paid (for the ships),” said President Francois Hollande, which was basically a shrug. Halting arms sales to the Kremlin would result in the loss of jobs at French weapons factories and damage the national economy, officials there said.

Other countries fear that Russia would respond to sanctions by cutting their supplies of gas and oil, as is happening in Ukraine.

The mood of morose resignation is most stark in Amsterdam, even as the bodies of the Flight 17 victims are finally being sent home. In recent years the Dutch have watched their trade with Russia grow rapidly, and both countries have billions of dollars at play in the other.

Shell, the international energy giant, headquarters in the Netherlands and, according to the New York Times, is one of the biggest foreign stakeholders in the natural gas fields of Siberia.

Penalties for trading with Russia could hurt not only Shell but many Dutch citizens whose pensions are heavy with the company’s stock. Because of its enormous influence upon the Dutch government, no official denunciation of Russia is expected there.

Back in the United States, polls in the aftermath of the airline tragedy show most Americans strongly disapprove of Obama’s handling of foreign crises. Yet an even larger majority opposes increased U.S. involvement in Ukraine, Iraq or anywhere else.

What people in this country seem to want most from the president is more emotion and tougher talk. While everybody’s rightly infuriated that 298 souls were lost because Putin gave missiles to a bunch of goons, nobody sane believes war is the answer.

Twisting the economic screws would definitely grab the Kremlin’s attention if our major allies agreed to sanctions, but right now the United States stands essentially alone. Obama could crack down more, but just wait until the blowback hits U.S. firms heavily invested in Russia.

So, in the absence of an easy answer, we fulminate: Putin is a thug. Putin is a coward. Putin is whatever.

And, after all is said, he’s still there.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.

AFP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov

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