* Conducting air accident inquiry in war zone will be tough
* Access to site, rival accusations of blame complicate task
* Ukraine has legal authority, seeks international inquiry
* Black boxes may offer little insight into cause
* Beyond what happened, pressure to know who was responsible
By Victoria Bryan and Tom Miles
BERLIN/GENEVA, July 18 As international
investigators head to rebel-held eastern Ukraine to piece
together what - and who - caused a Malaysian airliner to plunge
into the steppe, securing evidence in the middle of a war zone
is a major challenge.
Proving what happened beyond doubt and to the satisfaction
of the warring parties may already be all but impossible, after
local people and rebel fighters have spent 24 hours sifting and
moving debris and bodies and Ukraine and Russia make detailed
allegations against each other and argue over the black boxes.
In principle, all sides support a call, backed by Russia and
other world powers in the U.N. Security Council, for an
impartial international investigation. But even agreeing the
Kiev government has jurisdiction in a region where separatists
have declared their own republic poses difficulties.
"It is a national competence, and that is part of the
problem in this case," said Roland Bless, spokesman for the
Swiss chair of Europe's OSCE security body, referring to rebel
claims to sovereignty in the eastern region of Donetsk.
The OSCE said some of its staff had visited the impact site
on Friday, a day after the aircraft was lost with 298 aboard.
Separatists have said they have recovered both flight
recorders from the Boeing 777 and are willing to cooperate,
including by holding a ceasefire. But officials in Kiev accused
them of trying to spirit the black boxes, and a missile launcher
they used to shoot it down, across the nearby Russian border.
Russia, which under normal circumstances would have no
obvious stake in the air accident investigation of a U.S.-made
Malaysia Airlines plane flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur,
has said it does not intend to take the recorders.
In a typical crash inquiry, it is up to Ukraine, on whose
territory the plane came down, to secure the area and recover
the flight data and cockpit voice recordings and liaise with the
manufacturer to ensure their contents are downloaded correctly.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has already spoken with
other world leaders about the running of an international
investigation, which could allay some of the rivalries.
"It's very important that unbiased international experts
will be the first persons who get access to the black boxes,"
said Ukraine's U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Yurii Klymenko.
"The issue is who will ... open the boxes? We would like to
have the true information, not the fake one."
If another body obtains the recorders it must hand them
over, otherwise it will run the risk of corrupting the data or
being suspected of trying to destroy it, said London lawyer Jim
Morris from Irwin Mitchell, a former British military pilot.
After a Soviet fighter shot down Korean Air Lines flight KAL
007 in 1983 when it strayed into Soviet air space, Moscow found
the black box - but only handed it international investigators
after the end of the Cold War nearly a decade later.
The United Nations air safety arm, the International Civil
Aviation Organization, said it has made an offer to Ukraine to
put together a team of international investigators.
Brian Alexander, an aviation attorney at New York law firm
Kreindler and Kreindler, said that despite the "dicey" situation
in the area, "with the international pressure, the community
should be able to get a team to the site and allow an
investigation to proceed as normally".
"But trying to figure out who provided the training, the
weapons, that's a much thornier issue," he said, adding that
investigators would be looking for debris not part of the plane.
However, the flight data may offer little information on
what caused the 777 to come down. An explosion by a heavy
missile that blew the aircraft apart could show only as a
sudden, catastrophic collapse of all the onboard systems.
If, as Ukraine alleges, MH17 was hit by an SA-11 missile,
there is a good chance the pilots did not see it coming, leaving
little or no informative trace on the cockpit voice recording.
The wreckage might show traces of explosives that could
indicate the blast of a warhead. Somewhere in the debris strewn
for miles across the steppe might be remnants of a missile. But
finding them will be hard and proving their provenance after the
confusion and mutual accusations of the first day will be tough.
A former British airman said: "Any recovered missile
fragments could be analysed. But 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.
Washington security expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center
for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a report that
while the use of an SA-11 or SA-17 radar-guided missile seemed
likely, determining whether it was fired by pro-Russian rebels
or by Ukrainian or Russian armed forces would be problematic.
Cordesman suggested that any of these three parties might
have opened fire in an area of high tension, believing their
target to be hostile rather than a civilian aircraft.
Noting in 1988 that the U.S. navy shot down an Iranian
airliner that Washington said was mistaken for a warplane, he
said: "Human error does happen, particularly when both sides may
be on the edge of overreacting and have virtually no real
"The fact this is a horrible human tragedy should not lead
to rushed judgment as to motive, guilt, or intent."
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)