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8 unanswered questions about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

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Amid the chaos and the grief, the politics and the finger pointing, we are no closer to answering some key questions about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The crash, which killed all 298 aboard, has turned a volatile Ukrainian region into a global problem.

Here are eight questions we don’t yet have the answers to.

1. Who shot down the plane?

Only a full investigation can settle that. This much we know: Flight MH17 was shot down using a surface-to-air missile in Ukrainian territory that’s controlled by pro-Russian rebels.

Ukraine’s government says it has “compelling evidence” that a Russian-supplied battery, manned by Russian operatives, fired the missile. The United States has also pointed the finger at the Russian-trained rebels.

“We have a video showing a launcher moving back through a particular area there, out into Russia, with at least one missing missile on it,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday.

But Russia has denied any involvement. So have the rebels, who accuse the Ukrainians of downing the plane — without offering proof.

2. Why would anyone target a passenger plane?

If indeed the rebels are behind the attack, they may have mistaken the plane for a Ukrainian military craft. In the past few months, the rebels have used surface-to-air missiles to bring down more than a dozen planes, including two transport aircraft, the U.S. Embassy in Kiev said.

Shortly after the crash, Igor Strelkov, the self-proclaimed defense minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, claimed on social media that the rebels had shot down a military transport plane. Those posts were later deleted once it turned out the plane was a civilian aircraft.

“It has the earmarks of a mistaken identification of an aircraft that they may have believed was Ukrainian,” Arizona Sen. John McCain told MSNBC.

3. Why was the plane flying over a war zone?

Most airlines follow rules set by national civil aviation authorities and take the most direct route available, said Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The Malaysia Airlines flight left Amsterdam for Kuala Lumpur. It flew over eastern Ukraine, which is a common route for international carriers.

Last week, Eurocontrol, the agency responsible for coordinating European airspace, said Ukrainian authorities had closed airspace in the region below 32,000 feet, but it was open at the level Flight 17 was flying (33,000 feet).

“There’s a lot of questions to be asked in a lot of different places,” CNN aviation analyst Miles O’Brien said. “Why didn’t government officials close off that airspace completely? 32,000 feet, that’s a completely arbitrary number.”

4. When will international investigators get access to the crash site?

No one knows.

A U.N. Security Council meeting ended early Monday morning, with Australia introducing a resolution that called for a swift international investigation.

“There’s no doubt that at the moment the site is under the control of the Russian-backed rebels. And given the almost certain culpability of the Russian-backed rebels in the downing of the aircraft, having those people in control of the site is a little like leaving criminals in control of a crime scene,” Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday.

But Russia, which has veto power as permanent member of the council, wants a modified resolution — one that leaves out Ukraine from any investigation.

5. Where are the so-called black boxes?

The rebels say they have recovered something, but can’t be certain those are the flight data and cockpit voice recorders.

“These are some technical objects. We cannot say for sure these are black boxes,” rebel leader Alex Borodai told CNN.

Finding the devices is crucial; they will offer vital clues to the plane’s last moments.

What happens to the black boxes is also unclear.

In audio intercepts released by the Ukrainian government, a rebel leader is heard saying that Moscow is very interested in the black boxes and urges his followers to look for them urgently. (CNN can’t vouch for the authenticity of the audio).

6. Have all the victims’ bodies been recovered?

There’s no way to tell.

Rebels are keeping most of the bodies in two refrigerated train cars about 10 miles away from the site. And while international observers confirmed they saw “dozens and dozens” of bodies in the train, there was no way to verify the total.

7. What will happen to the remains?

That, too, is mired in politics. No one yet knows when they will be identified or where they will end up.

Alex Borodai, the rebel leader, says he’d rather hand over the remains to relatives — but only after “experts” examine them. He says he fears if the remains are turned over to Ukraine, the government would use them as evidence to blame his fighters for shooting down the plane.

“I want the bodies,” Selena Fredriksz sobbed at a memorial at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on Sunday. Her son, 23-year-old Bryce, was one of the passengers on the plane. “They can have anything, but the bodies have to come back. Take their iPhones, take their money, take everything.”

8. How will Russia respond?

If an investigation concludes the plane was shot down by rebels using a Russian-supplied missile — or, worse still, by Russians themselves — President Vladimir Putin will have two choices. And neither, says Professor Daniel Treisman, works to his advantage.

Putin could reject the conclusions and stand by the rebels. If he does so, he risks becoming an international pariah. The West might also hit Russia with even tougher economic sanctions, enough to cripple its economy and send it into a recession.

Or, Putin could sever ties with the rebels. But that could present problems too.

“A relentless barrage of propaganda has convinced many Russians that their co-ethnics in Donetsk and Luhansk are being massacred by troops commanded by a fascist regime in Kiev,” said Treisman, who teaches political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and who authored the book, “The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev.”

“For Putin to bow to international pressure and abandon his former charges would look like cowardice.”


  • Ron

    FIFA needs to go ahead and cancel the plans for Russia to host the next World Cup. That’s an ill-advised move on many fronts.

  • Mark Stabler

    Seems to me that we are tip-toeing around the obvious. The piece of military equipment that shot down this plane was Russian and was a sophisticated piece of equipment that required trained personnel to operate. A rocket launcher of the type used to down this plane was observed returning to Russian territory with one missile missing shortly after the downing of the plane. What exactly else do you need to have to put your finger on the guilty parties? Certainly the use of this equipment requires considerable training to operate. It’s not like handing an individual a rifle and some ammo, helping him point the gun and firing a few rounds. The fingerprints of those responsible are obvious to all fair minded citizens and it wasn’t a bunch of drunk rebels left to clean up the mess.

  • Bob

    “This much we know: Flight MH17 was shot down using a surface-to-air missile in Ukrainian territory that’s controlled by pro-Russian rebels”
    We dont know that. Sadly, not a single piece of evidence so far.

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