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Stench swirls around Russia

July 19: Ukraine today claimed it had evidence to prove Russia supplied the missile system that downed a Malaysian airliner and accused pro-Moscow rebels and their protectors of destroying evidence to cover up their guilt.

As the militants kept international monitors away from the wreckage and scores of bodies festered for a third day, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the rebels to cooperate and insisted that a UN-mandated investigation must not leap to conclusions.

With midday temperatures touching 30C, the stench of death began to pervade the crash site in eastern Ukraine. The Dutch government, whose citizens made up more than half the 298 aboard MH-17, said it was “furious” at the manhandling of corpses strewn for miles over open country.

US secretary of state John Kerry, in a phone call with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, stressed that investigators must get full access to the crash site, the state department said. Kerry told Lavrov the US is “very concerned” over reports that the remains of victims and debris from the site have been removed or tampered with.

Germany called it Moscow’s last chance to cooperate. European powers seemed to swing behind Washington’s belief that Russia’s separatist allies were to blame.

Germany, reliant like other EU states on Russian energy and more engaged in Russian trade than the US, has been reluctant to escalate a confrontation with Moscow.

The following are answers that emerged in the past 24 hours to some of the questions swirling around the tragedy.

What proof did Ukraine furnish?

Ukraine, which is fighting Russia-backed rebels in the east, said it had “compelling evidence” the missile battery was not just brought in from Russia but manned by three Russian citizens who later took the truck-mounted system back over the border.

Vitaly Nayda, the Ukrainian head of counterintelligence, showed photographs of what he identified as three Buk-M1 missile systems on the road to the Russian border. Two devices — which looked like missile launchers mounted on an armoured vehicle — crossed the border into Russia around 2am Friday, less than 10 hours after MH-17 was blown apart in midair, he said. The third weapon crossed around 4am.

Are the pieces of evidence good enough?

Ukraine has given specific details, some of which have matched what the West has been saying. But such proof will be treated as unverified information until independent observers examine them.

Remember, not individuals but governments with accompanying resources are at play here. Photographs and data intercepts are elementary devices in propaganda wars.

Which pieces of information furnished by the West and Ukraine are matching so far?

The site of the missile launch, the accent in the intercepts of militant conversations and a conclusion that the rebels on their own could not have handled the sophisticated missile system.

What about the site of the launch?

Nayda, the Ukrainian counterintelligence chief, said the missile had been fired from the town of Snezhnoye, located in rebel-controlled territory, echoing US President Barack Obama.

Both the Ukrainians and the Americans said they believed that the separatist rebels would have needed help from Russia in order to fire the anti-aircraft missiles. “It strains credulity to think that (the missile) could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance,” Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters.

It takes professionals to shoot down an airliner and not a group of “drunken gorillas”, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said, adding that “it is possible that these people came from Russia”.

How did they zero in on the location?

All indications suggest that the Americans did the tracking. The detection satellites, known as Defense Support Program (or DSP) satellites, orbit the Earth around 36,000km over the equator, and are operated from a control station at Buckley Air Force base in Colorado in the US.

The satellite data included an image of a plume of smoke left in the missile’s trail that allowed analysts to calculate a launch area near the Russia-Ukraine border that is dominated by pro-Russian separatist fighters.

It also included data culled from infrared sensors, which detected the explosion of the jet. Although the possible launch area extends to both sides of the border, the most likely location is in rebel-held territory close to where the wreckage of the plane plummeted from the sky, US officials said.

So, is the case settled?

No, not yet. When US analysts tried to pin down who fired the missile, why and where it came from, they ran into difficult questions.

The American analysts have based some of their conclusions so far on technical data from advanced spy satellites whose principal use is to provide early warning of intercontinental ballistic missile launches. In an indication of the limitations of US intelligence capabilities, officials said they were unsure how the missile arrived in the launch area. There was no US intelligence showing a Buk (also known as SA-11) missile crossing the border into Ukraine, the Pentagon said.

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, said that separatists had been spotted hours before the incident with an SA-11 system “at a location close to the site where the plane came down”. She said a western reporter had indicated early on Thursday that an SA-11 system was reported near Snezhnoye — the place that was pinpointed as the launch site on the basis of the satellite data.

But till Saturday afternoon, US officials had stopped short of accusing Russian fighters of playing a direct role in launching the missile. No determination had yet been made as to “who pushed the button”, an official said.

What are the rebels saying?

In the regional capital Donetsk, the Prime Minister of the separatist authorities said Kiev was holding up the arrival of international experts whose mission was authorised on Friday by the UN Security Council. Contrary to earlier statements by the rebels, Alexander Borodai said they had not found the black box recorders.

Are black boxes crucial?

Usually, yes. But some analysts expressed the fear that flight data may offer little information on what downed the plane. An explosion by a missile that blew the aircraft apart could show only as a sudden, catastrophic collapse of all the onboard systems. There is a good chance that the pilots did not see the missile coming, leaving little informative trace on the cockpit voice recording.

Who should investigate such a case?

In a typical crash inquiry, it is up to Ukraine, on whose territory the plane fell, to secure the area and recover the flight data and liaise with the manufacturer to download the contents correctly.

But securing evidence in the middle of a war zone is a daunting task. The Ukrainian President has already spoken to world leaders about an international investigation.

What will give the investigators a breakthrough?

The investigators will be looking for debris not part of the plane. The wreckage might show traces of explosives. Somewhere in the debris strewn for miles across the steppe might be remnants of a missile. But finding them will be hard.

A former British airman said: “Unless there is a stark difference in the exact type of arms both sides hold, differentiating is not easy.” In fact, all sides use similar former Soviet hardware.