BRUSSELS — Eight weeks after a Malaysia Airlines plane disintegrated over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard and triggering a frenzy of East-West finger-pointing, investigators, in their first account of the calamity on Tuesday, released evidence consistent with an attack by a surface-to-air missile but shed no clear light on who was responsible.
A preliminary report issued in The Hague by the Dutch Safety Board, which is leading an international effort to get to the bottom of the tragedy, gave some indirect support to assertions by the United States and Ukraine that pro-Russia rebels shot down the aircraft with an SA-11, or Buk, surface-to-air missile.
Its findings also debunked several theories circulated by Russian media and on the Internet, including reports that moments before the disaster the pilots of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 reported to air traffic controllers that they were being tailed by a Ukrainian military jet.
The release of the preliminary findings should also calm repeated questions by Russian officials and media in recent weeks about why, after an initial blaze of publicity and accusations, the fate of Flight 17 had lost the West’s attention, a shift of interest they have often presented as evidence of some sort of coverup.
Yet so circumspect and noncommittal was the Dutch report that “everyone will find something here to support their case,” Reed Foster, a defense analyst at IHS Jane’s in London, said. “It is a very vanilla account of a very tragic event.”
The Dutch report marked the first official accounting of an episode that escalated tensions between Moscow and Washington. Yet the preliminary findings, constrained by investigators’ limited access to the crash site, a wide swath of farmland controlled by pro-Russia rebels near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, and also their wariness of stepping into a political minefield, only highlighted how difficult a definitive reckoning remains.
Bitter arguments about what happened to Flight 17 have both pained the grieving relatives of victims and clouded what is ultimately a criminal case involving the murder of 193 Dutch nationals, 43 Malaysians, 27 Australians, and 35 others from nations as far-flung as Indonesia and Britain.
Intense fighting near the crash site kept investigators away. They pieced together their account from the plane’s recorded flight data and cockpit voice recorders, photographs of the wreckage, air traffic control data, meteorological reports, and other sources of information.
Tjibbe Joustra, chairman of the Dutch Safety Board, said in a telephone interview from The Hague that a final report would be issued sometime in the middle of next year and investigators hoped to clarify “the type of object that penetrated the plane.”
The preliminary report’s most striking passages related to the moments just before the aircraft was hit, presenting a picture of a humdrum journey disturbed only by bad weather and clogged flight corridors.
The pilots’ last communication with air traffic controllers in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk, according to the report, was a routine, three-second confirmation of the flight’s intended path through an aerial mile marker, or waypoint, known as an RND. “Romeo, November, Delta Malaysian, one seven,” a pilot reported. Less than a second later, the cockpit and the front fuselage of the eastbound plane were hit by a shower of “high-energy objects from outside the aircraft.”
Nick de Larringa, the European editor of HIS Jane’s Defence Weekly, said that while not providing any definitive answers, evidence presented by the Dutch strengthened a view promoted by authorities in Washington and Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, that pro-Russia rebels shot down the aircraft using a Buk surface-to air-system.
Vladimir Chizov, Russia’s ambassador to the European Union in Brussels, said that the Dutch report shed no significant light on what had happened and said Russia, unlike the West, had stayed interested in the fate of Flight 17: “Until today it seemed as if the whole crash was forgotten for several months by everybody except Russia — and perhaps Malaysia. There was silence.’’