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Photo Gallery: The Contested Crash Site of MH17

Foto: REUTERS

The Tragedy of MH17 Attack Could Mark Turning Point in Ukraine Conflict

The shooting down of a jet carrying 298 people on Thursday could mark the turning point in the conflict between Russia, Ukraine and the West. With evidence suggesting pro-Russian separatists fired the missile, pressure is mounting on Vladimir Putin.
Von SPIEGEL Staff

A travel guide titled "Bali and Lombok" could be seen lying in the middle of the field of smoking wreckage, a nightmarish landscape of ash, twisted metal and body parts. For the passengers on Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17, the prospect of a vacation in the tropics ended in death, near a poultry farm on the outskirts of the village of Grabovo in eastern Ukraine.

On Thursday, armed rebels combed through the wreckage of the aircraft, which had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile while traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The men in camouflage held up Dutch passports for the cameras, while one used his mobile phone to take pictures of the horrific scene.

After hearing a loud explosion on Thursday afternoon, residents of the neighboring village, Sjeverne, initially remained in their homes. They initially thought they were coming under fire from the Ukrainian army, says a local journalist who calls himself Sergei. "The explosion was so powerful that a friend even threw himself onto the ground."

Then the young men from the town got on their mopeds and drove to the accident site, three kilometers (2 miles) away. They saw a dead body on the side of the road, says Sergei. They walked gingerly across the scorched earth, wearing sandals and shorts. There were bodies with twisted limbs lying on the ground. The mouth of one dead woman was still open in a scream.

It was almost surreal, the way the human suffering of an aviation disaster had collided with the war in eastern Ukraine, on territory held by pro-Russian separatist on the eastern edge of Europe.

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Photo Gallery: An Attack with Consequences

Foto: DOMINIQUE FAGET/ AFP

All 298 people on board the Boeing 777 died in the crash. Many were on their way to exotic travel destinations in Asia. There were young couples on board, and there were 80 children, including three infants. Entire families perished, as evidenced by the children's drawings and comic books that now lie scattered in a Ukrainian wasteland.

There were also four Germans among the casualties: Wilhelmina B., who was sitting in seat 36F; Fatima D., a 24-year-old student in seat 20D, who was going to Australia to visit her parents; Gabriele L., in 21E, who worked as a teacher at a German school in Sydney; and, in 41E, 24-year-old student Olga I., who was traveling with her Ukrainian boyfriend.

Holland in a State of Mourning

Some 189 of the passengers were from the Netherlands, where the entire country has been in a state of mourning since Thursday. A sympathy card attached to a bouquet of white lilies in front of Terminal 2 at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam reads: "Holland is in mourning. The world is in a state of shock. This should never have happened." There was a condolence book on a table next to the bouquet, in which someone had written: "This was a crime against humanity." Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had ordered flags to be flown at half-mast, said: "This beautiful summer day has ended in the blackest possible way." Rutte and the king and queen of the Netherlands were to meet with family members of the deceased on Monday.

Until last week, most in Western Europe perceived the civil war in Ukraine as a foreign and faraway conflict, dominated by bearded men in strange uniforms. The downing of flight MH 17 has suddenly brought the conflict much closer.

Indeed, the missile that shot down the airliner could have struck anyone traveling to a vacation destination in Asia. The route over eastern Ukraine is part of one of the busiest flight paths in the world, known to pilots as "L980." Anyone who has ever flown from Frankfurt, Amsterdam or London to Singapore, Hong Kong or Mumbai has most likely traveled along that route.

At the time of the incident, flights operated by Singapore Airlines and Air India were in the air space over the rebel-held territory, only a few kilometers away. Lufthansa flight LH 797, en route from Hong Kong to Frankfurt, was also scheduled to fly over the region a few hours later, but after the accident the pilots were instructed to program a new route into their flight computer. It is only since then that all commercial flights have made a wide berth around the region.

A Turning Point?

The downing of MH 17 could go down in history as a turning point in the Ukraine conflict. If it does, it wouldn't be the first time that a civil aviation disaster has had enormous political consequences.

Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov characterized the downing of the Malaysian airliner near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk as being the equivalent of an Eastern European 9/11. While this may not be the best comparison, the July 17 disaster certainly does mark an important turning point -- for Russia and President Vladimir Putin, and for Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, inaugurated only two months ago. It also represents a watershed moment for the West, and the Europeans in particular, because it could force them to begin taking a more decisive approach in the Ukraine conflict.

Russia's claims that this is a purely a regional conflict that does not concern the rest of the world can no longer be allowed to stand unchallenged.

The official investigations will continue for a long time, and it seems unlikely that all parties will recognize the conclusions reached by the experts. But it is already clear who the main suspects are in the downing of the airliner: the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine who had received substantial weaponry from Russia in recent weeks, and may have unintentionally struck a commercial airliner with a surface-to-air missile. They apparently believed it was a Ukrainian military aircraft.

Last Friday, US President Barack Obama, echoing the sentiments of his ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said that the rebels were likely to blame for this "global tragedy." According to reports in the US media, images recorded by US spy satellites support his contention. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was more cautious, although many diplomats in the German Foreign Ministry also consider this version of the events to be plausible.

Obama: 'We Don't Have Time for Propaganda'

Who should be held accountable for shooting down a Boeing jet filled with innocent people? If it turns out that the pro-Russian rebels he helped arm are to blame, Russian President Vladimir Putin will also face serious criticism, which will likely translate into further Western sanctions that could be very damaging to Russia. Is this why the separatists initially prevented independent observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) from gaining access to the crash site?

"We don't have time for propaganda," Obama said. "We don't have time for games." Oleksandr Turchynov, the chairman of the Ukrainian parliament, even called upon the West to begin sending weapons to his country.

In Europe, many leaders have expressed outrage by the shooting down of the flight. In an editorial printed by the Sunday Times newspaper, British Prime Minister David Cameron called the attack a "direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias and training and arming them. ... We must turn this moment of outrage into a moment of action." He also called on other European leaders, to "respond robustly" with new sanctions. "For too long, there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine," Cameron wrote.

After telephone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande on Sunday, Cameron's office issued a statement saying that the leaders agreed that the immediate priority is to secure access to the crash site and ensure that specialist teams are able to recover the victims and return them home. They said "Putin has an important role to play by persuading the separatists to grant access and to work with the international community." They also agreed the EU must "reconsider its approach to Russia," and that EU foreign ministers would impose further sanctions if full access to the site wasn't provided to accident investigators.

"Moscow has perhaps its last chance to show that it is seriously interested in a solution," Steinmeier told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

In Germany, so far, an atmosphere of reserve has prevailed. Neither Chancellor Merkel nor Foreign Minister Steinmeier has publicly blamed Putin for the incident. Speaking on Friday, the chancellor stated, "These events have once again shown us that what is required is a political solution and above all that it is also Russia that is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine at the moment."

On Monday, a Dutch forensics team arrived in Torez, where a train with refrigerator cars is holding the remains of the victims retrieved so far. Meanwhile, international pressure is growing, with the UN expected to vote later in the day on a resolution demanding international access to the crash site and a cease-fire around the area.

Victims from all Walks of Life

The 298 people who died over Ukraine had nothing to do with the conflict that their deaths could now influence. They probably didn't even know that they were flying through the air 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) above it.

There were 298 tragedies.

There was British citizen Glenn Thomas, 49, a media officer with the World Health Organization. There were Roger Guard, a pathologist, and his wife Jill, both Australians. There were the Smallenburgs, a couple from Hilversum near Amsterdam, traveling with their two children. And there was Nick Norris, 68, a management consultant from Perth, Australia. He had boarded the flight in Amsterdam with his three grandchildren, Mo, Evie and Matis, aged eight to 12.

The passengers also included at least seven attendees of one of the most important global conferences on HIV, which is taking place in Melbourne, Australia, this week. Initially, it had been reported that as many as 100 attendees died in the crash, but conference organizers confirmed Monday that figure had been far lower than originally thought.

The victims included Joepe Lange, a professor of medicine at the University of Amsterdam, who had long been a pioneer in AIDS research and had specialized in HIV therapies.

Even worse, all of these stories will revive memories of another Malaysia Airlines flight, MH 370, which disappeared from the sky in March.

One Australian family now faces the incomprehensible fate of having lost some of its members on both flights. In March, Kaylene Mann lost her brother Rodney Burrows and his wife Mary on board MH 370. And now her stepdaughter and her husband were on their way back to Australia after a vacation in Europe. The two had wanted to take a different flight, but they were unable to change their tickets.

It took President Putin several hours to make a statement after the crash. Finally, he said: "Certainly the government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy." He also pointed out that if Ukraine hadn't launched a military offensive against the separatists, the accident would never have happened. It's a claim he repeated on Monday. "We can say with confidence that if fighting in eastern Ukraine had not been renewed on June 28, this tragedy would not have happened," Putin said. "Nobody should or does have a right to use this tragedy for such mercenary objectives."

Meanwhile, as of Friday, Russian state media reported around the clock that the Ukrainian forces probably shot down the aircraft. The majority of Russians believe the repeated claims of experts who insist that the pro-Russian rebels didn't even have the kinds of weapons used in the incident. The height of the propaganda offensive was probably a report from the Russian news agency Interfax, which claimed that the attack was in fact aimed at Putin himself, who was returning from a trip to Latin America.

Did Rebels Get Russian Training?

Nevertheless, there are many indications that the separatists were likely responsible. The United States presented over the weekend what it called "powerful" evidence the rebels shot down the jet. On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN Russia had directed large quantities of heavy weapons to Ukrainian separatists and even trained them on the use of SA-11 (Buk) anti-aircraft missiles of the type believed to have been used in the attack on Flight MH 17. "We know for certain that the separatists have a proficiency that they've gained from training from Russians as to how to use these sophisticated SA-11 systems," Kerry said.

A commercial airliner traveling at 33,000 feet can only be shot down by a radar-guided anti-aircraft missile system, such as the Soviet-made Buk-M1. In late June, the rebels boasted that they had gained control over two of the systems from the Ukrainian army. In NATO terminology, the Buk system is referred to as a "gadfly." It can capture six targets at the same time, and it can shoot them down from a distance of up to 25 kilometers.

UN Ambassador Samantha Power told the UN Security Council that rebels had already shot down Ukrainian military transport planes in the past. Besides, she said, they had been spotted with a Buk system on Thursday. The interior minister in Kiev issued a video showing a missile system being transported to the Russian border. The video was supposedly recorded at 4:50 a.m. last Friday, or about 12 hours after the crash of MH 17.

'We Warned Them Not To Fly through Our Airspace'

The Ukrainians also released conversations they had allegedly recorded. In one, a separatist officer named Igor Besler proudly tells a Russian intelligence officer about the downing of an aircraft. In a later conversation, he sounds horrified as he reports that it was a civilian aircraft, and he says that he suspects the dead passengers were spies. In another recording made shortly before the aircraft was shot down, rebels are allegedly discussing a battery of Buk missiles from Russia. However, the authenticity of the recordings has yet to be confirmed.

Ironically, Igor Strelkov, a colonel with the Ukrainian separatists and former Russian intelligence officer, provided another clue on the social network VKontakte. On Thursday, he posted: "We have just shot down an An-26. We warned them not to fly through our airspace." He also wrote that he had "information about a second aircraft that was shot down, reportedly an Su." At that point, he was unaware that the downed airliner was a Boeing, and he later deleted the posting. In a bizarre interview, Strelkov later claimed that the passengers on board the flight had already been dead when it was shot down.

Miners, Truck Drivers and Daredevils

It would be no surprise if the rebels, with almost no trained military personnel, had mistaken the passenger jet for a Ukrainian military aircraft. The separatist leaders are in command of a force consisting of miners, truck drivers, daredevils and the jobless. Professional soldiers, such as the commander of the so-called Vostok battalion, Alexander Khodakovsky, also consider the untrained soldiers a scourge within their own ranks.

MH 17 had only been shot down 15 hours earlier when, early Friday morning, a spokesman from the rebel headquarters, quoting top rebel commander Igor Strelkov, reported that combat operations would continue in the Donetsk region, except in the area where the plane had crashed. According to Strelkov, a "humanitarian cease-fire" to allow aviation experts to investigate the crash site was unnecessary, because the site was "well within the territory held by the people's militia of the Donetsk People's Republic." Suspending combat operations at this point, he said, was "not practical."

For Kiev, things did not go very well militarily last week. The Ukrainian military had reported major military successes until then. It had captured the rebel stronghold of Sloviansk and closed on the regional capital. The rebels in Donetsk were becoming increasingly restless.

But then several hundred Ukrainian Army troops came under heavy fire. Towns they had already captured near the Russian border had to be abandoned again. Then the rebels shot down a Russian An-26 transport aircraft and an Su-25 fighter jet. The rebels had apparently received new weapons -- from Russia.

The Russian state TV channel Rossiya 1, one of the most important propaganda tools for the Kremlin, aired a telling report on Wednesday evening. A correspondent, reporting from a "secret militia base in the combat zone," said that there had been "military successes" that were partly the result of new weapons. The journalist pointed to a row of tanks that looked brand new parked in a small forest used as camouflage. Unfortunately, the separatists, who had "only driven long-distance buses so far," had little experience with tanks.

Operating antiaircraft missiles is much more difficult. To be operated properly, even simpler models like the Buk system require at least three soldiers who "must be trained on the weapon for at least a month," says Moscow military expert Alexander Golz. And Doug Richardson, a missiles expert with trade magazine Jane's Defence," says: "The systems may have been operated by amateurs and were in semi-automatic mode."

In the standard configuration, a Buk battery consists of three elements: an armored vehicle with a large radar device for target acquisition; the command vehicle, where there are monitors from which the battery is controlled; and, finally, one or more mobile launching pads with four missiles each. It's possible that someone simply started firing from a missile-launching vehicle.

Philip Breedlove, NATO's supreme allied commander for Europe, had already warned Pentagon officials in late June that Russia was training separatists in the use of anti-aircraft systems on the Russian side of the border, and that these missile batteries would later be driven to the Ukrainian side.

A Case for NATO?

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has long pointed to the threat posed by the "green men" in eastern Ukraine, as the rebels are known within NATO. A few weeks ago, Rasmussen presented a classified document titled "Hybrid Warfare," in which he reportedly discussed whether the military activities of these men dressed in uniforms without any insignia were a case for the Western military alliance. Rasmussen apparently asked his legal experts to examine whether attacks by the separatists could trigger the application of NATO's mutual defense clause.

The document was rejected by the NATO Council, where most member states, including Germany, reportedly felt that it was too alarmist. But the downing of the passenger jet is likely to push the issue to the top of the agenda once again.

A discussion of the consequences has also erupted in foreign policy and security policy circles in Berlin. Economic sanctions against Russia are no longer the only issue on the table. The German Foreign Ministry and the Chancellery want to use the situation to push for talks between Russia and the separatists, as well as with the Ukrainian government. "In this way, perhaps something good can emerge from the tragedy," said Foreign Ministry officials.

Peacekeeping Mission?

Some now consider a UN peace mission to be the right approach in Ukraine. A few officials in the German Defense Ministry support this solution, as does the chairman of the defense committee in the German parliament, Hans-Peter Bartels. "A UN peacekeeping force is certainly a possibility to supervise a jointly negotiated solution," says Bartels, a member of Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Clearly it will not be easy to gain approval for the idea of a peace mission. Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has a veto and influence on all relevant decisions. It is difficult to imagine Putin allowing a UN force to prevent him from playing his dangerous games across the border.

Ukrainian President Poroshenko, on the other hand, seems to favor such a solution. He declared that restoring order in eastern Ukraine is now the rest of the world's business. But this is also potentially dangerous for Poroshenko, because a peacekeeping force would freeze the status quo in the region, which is not in Kiev's interest. Once observers and peacekeeping troops are on the ground, it will legitimize those currently in power in Donetsk to a certain extent. The UN would have to negotiate with them, and Poroshenko could no longer take military action against the rebels.

Flying over a War Zone

The question many people are now asking is why airliners are even flying over a war zone. The route across Ukraine is the most economical and, therefore, the most popular connection among airlines between major European and Asian cities. As recently as early last week, aviation regulators still viewed the skies over Ukraine as a safe flying route.

Graphic: Changing Flight Paths

Graphic: Changing Flight Paths

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

Neither the American FAA nor Eurocontrol in Europe had issued any warnings, nor had the airline umbrella organization IATA or the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Without such a warning, an air route remains "in use," says a Lufthansa spokeswoman. In addition to the airlines, which save fuel, use of the route benefits Ukraine, which collects overflight fees.

No matter how fierce the fighting is below, civil aircraft flying high above a war zone are not at any risk, because they are outside the range of most weapons. That, at least, was the official stance until now.

But for the risk analysts at most airlines, the situation in Ukraine still seemed too precarious. Carriers like Korean Air, Asiana and Qantas decided weeks ago to avoid Ukraine altogether. British Airways consistently flew around the troubled country on its flights between London and Bangkok, as did Air France.

Nevertheless, three-quarters of flights, including those operated by Lufthansa, KLM and Malaysia Airlines, continued to fly over Ukrainian territory -- until the crash.

Now German pilots are calling for a review of air routes worldwide. Is flying over crisis zones like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan still justifiable?

A Malaysian Tragedy

It is especially tragic that this accident struck Malaysia Airlines. The carrier was already in financial trouble in early March, and then came flight MH 370 -- the aircraft that vanished into thin air. Only four months later, another Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 has crashed. It is questionable whether the airline can survive these two major blows.

In this sense, the conflict in Ukraine has also affected a country halfway around the world: Malaysia.

Last Friday marked the 21st day in the fasting month of Ramadan. The pilot of the downed Boeing, Wan Amran Wan Hussin, 50, had recently told his family that he wanted to attend the Hajj in Mecca this year. "We all became weak when we learned that Wan Amran was flying the plane," says his nephew.

Shortly before departure, a passenger named Mohammed Ali Mohammed Salim posted a video to his Instagram account that has since been forwarded thousands of times. It depicts a scene familiar to anyone beginning a trip by air. As the passengers put away their bags, the pilot announces: "We are in the process of loading the last few pieces of luggage. Please ensure that your mobile phones are switched off before we depart for…"

The video ends. "Wish me luck, in the name of God," Salim wrote. "My heart feels nervous."

By Marco Evers, Matthias Gebauer, Christian Neef, Gordon Repinski, Mathieu von Rohr, Matthias Schepp, Christoph Scheuermann, Hilmar Schmundt, Christoph Schult, Luzia Tschirky and Bernhard Zand

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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