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It's been 5 years since MH17 was shot down, killing 298 people. Here's what happened, and why nobody has yet been held officially responsible

Sinéad Baker , Business Insider US
 Jul 17, 2019, 06:09 PM
A photo from the crash site shared by the Dutch Safety Board shows the plane's exterior near the cockpit window "containing numerous small holes and indentations."
  • Flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Ukraine in July 17, 2014, five years ago Wednesday. The disaster killed 298 people.
  • World leaders were immediately suspicious of Russia, and investigators concluded in 2018 that the plane was downed by a Russian military missile.
  • The plane was flying over an area held by pro-Russian separatists that want to take the region out of Ukraine, but Russia has long denied any involvement in the attack and global tensions began to cool.
  • It took almost five years for anyone to be identified as a suspect, and Russia condemned the international investigation when Russian former military officers were named.
  • They will be put on trial, though they have not yet been apprehended.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider SA.

On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a missile over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, and spawning a political battle that is yet to end.

The aircraft, a Boeing 777, was travelling between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, when it was shot out of the sky by a Russian-made missile over the Donetsk territory, which is controlled by pro-Russian separatists that want to take the region out of Ukraine.

It took almost five years for anyone to be formally accused of the attack, and those suspects have not yet been apprehended.

The incident only increased tensions between Ukraine and Russia, with both nations repeatedly contradicting each other's accounts. As Kiev and Moscow squabble, families continue to call for justice, and criticism of the US for not standing up to Russia over the incident remains.

Here's what happened, the political fallout, and why no one has yet been formally held to account for the deaths.

In an 'unspeakable outrage,' the plane was shot out of the sky

The Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 plane took off from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport at 12.31 p.m. local time on Thursday, July 17, 2014, bound for Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

It lost contact with air traffic control at 1.20 p.m., who then spent the next two minutes frantically trying to contact the plane, with no success, investigators said. The plane was then around 50 km from the border between Russia and Ukraine, and had sent no distress signals.

Its emergency locator signal was used to locate the wreckage, where Dutch investigators said the aircraft was "destroyed." wreckage spread out far enough to cover two towns 10 km apart.

The 283 passengers and 15 crew members on board were dead. 193 of the passengers were from The Netherlands, 43 were from Malaysia, 27 were from Australia, 12 were from Indonesia, 10 were British, and the rest were from Germany, Belgium, the Philippines, Canada, and New Zealand.

The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) looking into the crash, made up of countries including the Netherlands, and Australia, said the passengers were likely killed, or at least knocked unconscious, instantly.

"Fuselage, cargo, and and baggage" were scattered over the site, leading investigators to believe that it had broken up in the air, and parts of the plane were pierced with holes.

A notice had been issued to prevent airlines from flying at a lower height over the area, due to "hostilities between armed groups and Ukrainian armed forces," but MH17 was flying at a safe height and in unrestricted airspace, the Dutch investigators said.

Three other planes flew through the area at the same time, the investigators said, but were unharmed.

Recordings show air traffic controllers at Russia's Rostov airport and Ukraine's Dnipropetrovsk International Airport were confused as they spoke to each other when the plane stopped responding. "Well, it's not responding to our calls too," Ukraine said.

"Yes it's disappeared," they said.

The countries whose citizens were killed were contacted.

Speaking one day after the incident, then-US President Barack Obama said it was an "outrage of unspeakable proportions" and a "global tragedy."

He said that the moment was a "wake-up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences to an escalating conflict in the eastern Ukraine."

Blame went to Russia, but it had a different explanation

Politicians around the world immediately pointed the finger at Russia, arguing that the actions of Russian separatists would likely not be far removed from those of the government.

And Russian separatists had already shot down other aircraft in the region.

Ukraine's president called the incident a "terrorist attack" just after it occurred, while Russian media argued that Ukrainian defense systems were operating in the area.

Former Congressman Ron Paul said that the crash was the fault of the US for destabilising the Donetsk region, and that reporting on the crash without the context of the conflict was "government propaganda."

World leaders issued warnings to Russian President Vladimir Putin while the White House, the UN, and the UK all called for a full, independent investigation. World leaders also said that the evidence from the crash site was being tampered with.

They urged a ceasefire between Russia, Ukraine, and separatists so the crash site could be properly investigated, but clashes in the region only escalated as experts came to examine the scene.

Police from The Netherlands and Australia struggled to access the crash site as fighting continued, and the international team of investigators also had difficulties getting to the site.

Putin said the blame for the tragedy lies with Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine still deny any involvement in the crash.

Russia produced what it said was satellite photographs that showed a Ukrainian fighter jet shooting down the plane, but the US state department said the idea was "preposterous."

In October 2015, Dutch investigators said they had evidence the plane was shot down by a Russian-built Buk missile, and the pilots were killed instantly. But Almaz-Antey, the manufacturer of Buk anti-aircraft systems, said in Russia that the version of the missile was only in use by Ukraine

In May 2018, the international team of investigators concluded that a Russian military missile was responsible for bringing down the plane, and showed photo and video evidence.

Australia and the Netherlands then formally blamed Russia for the crash, concluding that it was likely the missile system was brought to the region to support the separatists.

The theory, which was also held by US intelligence, was that separatists could have shot down the plane, believing it belonged to the Ukranian military.

Politicians promised 'hell to pay' - but no one has been formally held to account

International appetite to confront Putin was initially strong, but, five years later, the crash appears to have little bearing on countries' relationship with Russia, the war in Eastern Ukraine is still ongoing, and no one has been prosecuted over the deaths.

The UN said this year that 13,000 people have been killed in the Donetsk crisis since it began in 2014.

In November 2014, then-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised to "shirtfront" (an Australian term that means running at an opponents chest, potentially trying to knock them over) Putin.

He later only referred to "robust discussions" and told Putin that he should consider apologising and providing compensation to victims' families.

US Senator John McCain, who died last year, said in July 2017 that there would be "hell to pay" if Russian forces or pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine shot down the plane, while Hillary Clinton said it would be time to put Putin "on notice."

As families continued to campaign for the truth to come to light, the crash dropped further down the international agenda amid a lack of answers.

Five countries, including The Netherlands and Malaysia, called for a UN tribunal to investigate the crash, though Russia rejected the idea.

What had for a time coloured Putin's interactions with other world leaders paled in response to other concerns like US election meddling, propaganda, and Russia's human rights record.

US President Donald Trump has shown little interest in what role Russia may have played in the crash. The Australian parents of three children killed in the crash condemned Trump in July 2018 over what they said was his refusal to hold Putin to account.

In a Facebook post addressed to Donald Trump about his relationship with Putin, Anthony Maslin wrote: "That the man whose arse you've just been kissing did this, and continues to lie about it, is an irrefutable fact."

"It's not anger that I feel towards the two of you, its something much, much worse. It's pity. You have no empathy for your fellow man, and you clearly have no idea what love is. So you have nothing."

International investigators have accused Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov, and Leonid Kharchenko of the missile attack on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
Dutch national police/YouTube

Four people were formally accused of being behind the attack in June 2019 - the first time that anyone was formally named in connection with the deaths.

The JIT named Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinskiy, and Oleg Pulatov as well as Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko, who the investigators said all worked for the Donetsk People's Republic's military intelligence agency.

The three Russians formally worked for Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU, investigators said.

The JIT intends to try the four suspects in The Netherlands in March 2020 on murder charges - though the men have not yet been apprehended. Russia maintains that the investigation is baseless and that the accusations "discredit Russia in the eyes of the international community."

And while Russia will seek to distance itself from the suspects, Malaysia condemned the charges against the men, saying there was no "proof."

Its prime minister said that the investigation had become a "political issue" where people are accusing Russia, and said it wants "proof of guilt."

As the trial date approaches, families will wait anxiously to see if they get more of the answers and closure they are looking for.

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