Citizen Journalism

08.02.14

MH17 Missile Can't Hide From These Internet Sleuths

The man who tracked Assad's chemical weapons with the help of the public sleuths out the missile launcher that probably downed MH17.

Over the last two weeks I’ve documented the various open source information that has revealed key pieces of information about the Buk Missile Launcher linked to the downing of flight MH17.  Now, using that information, I believe it’s possible to construct a timeline of events on the ground in Ukraine on July 17th that can be evidenced using a variety of open source information.

To begin with, lets review the photographs and videos of the Buk Missile Launcher which appear to have been taken on the day of the attack, in chronological order.  All times are approximate.

Donetsk – 9am

140731-brown-moses-Truck-1
Courtesy Eliot Higgins

This photograph came from Paris Match, which they originally incorrectly reported as being taken in the town of Snizhne, an error they later corrected.  The photograph was in fact taken in the town of Donetsk, and based off the shadows visible in the photograph, it was taken some time in the morning, roughly 9am.

We also learnt from this image that the truck belonged to a rental company in the city of Donetsk, with the owner of the truck, contacted by Paris Match, claiming the truck had been stolen by pro-Russian rebels.

Zuhres – 11:40am

Video screenshot

This video was exactly located to the town of Zuhres, approximately 35km east of the last sighting on Donetsk with the footage reportedly filmed at 11:40am.  This shows the Buk still on the trailer, heading east.

Torez – 12:30pm

140731-brown-moses-buk-possible-site
Courtesy Eliot Higgins

This photograph from Torez, approximately 25km east of Zuhres, was taken about 12:30pm, and shows the Buk on the same truck, heading east. Note in this picture it appears to be cover in netting.

Snizhne – 1:30pm

140731-brown-moses-SW-Image-2
Courtesy Eliot Higgins

This photograph is the first to show the Buk dismounted from the trailer seen in previous photographs, and was taken around 1:30pm in the town of Snizhne.  Again, in this image, the Buk is heading east.

Snizhne – Post 1:30pm

Video screenshot

This appears to have been filmed shortly after the above photograph was taken, showing the Buk heading south out of Snizhne, around 1km away from the location of the previous photograph.  Assuming the Buk didn’t stop for a break, it would have taken a few minutes for the Buk to have reached the position in the video from the point it was sighted in the earlier photograph.

Luhansk – Unknown, likely post attack

Video screenshot

Filmed in rebel held Luhansk, around 70km north of Snizhne, and 25km west of the Russian border, this shows the Buk Missile Launcher back on the same trailer as seen in previous videos, with one missile clearly missing, and the netting seen in the Torez video removed.

Based on those locations, we have a map that looks like this, showing the Buk travelling east from Donetsk, eventually ending up in Luhansk

140731-brown-moses-Buk-map
Courtesy Eliot Higgins

It’s worth noting that the roads the Buk was sighted on would have been the most direct route from Donetsk to Snizhne. Now we have the route of the Buk Missile Launcher, we can also look at other information related where it was on the day.

Donetsk

The Ukraine@War blog picked up on some additional information about the Buk in Donetsk.  First it identified the locations described in Tweets posted before the downing of MH17 describing a missile launcher in Donetsk, waiting on the corner of an intersection around 9am.  He also highlights this video, purporting to be phone intercepts, where the Buk is discussed

Video screenshot

Some of the calls, recorded after 9am, appear to be the driver of the transporter with the Buk asking for directions to rebel group he’s trying to meet up with. Using various details in the phone call, and the earlier identification of a likely rebel base in a mine in Donetsk, Ukraine@War put together this map, showing the route the driver was taken, from where the transporter was spotted in the west, to the final destination in the east. 

140731-brown-moses-motel
Courtesy Eliot Higgins

The position the Donetsk photograph published in Paris Match was taken is just before the red arrow in the centre of the map. It seems based on the time and location of that photograph, and the work done by Ukraine@War, the calls appear to be authentic.

AP reported claims made by the Ukrainian counterterrorism chief, Vitaly Nayda

According to Nayda, at 1 a.m. on July 17 the launcher rolled into Ukraine across the Russian border aboard a flatbed truck. He cited communications intercepts that he would not share with the AP. By 9 a.m., he said, the launcher had reached Donetsk, the main rebel stronghold 125 miles (200 kilometers) from the border. In Donetsk it is presumed to have been off-loaded from the flatbed and started to move in a convoy on its own.

Nayda said the Buk turned back east toward Snizhne. Townspeople who spoke to the AP said it rolled into Snizhne around lunchtime.

Torez

Following the locating of the Torez photograph, a number of journalists visited the area, speaking to locals who had seen the launcher. Buzzfeed spoke to locals who “said that the launcher had driven down Gagarina Street, one of the town’s main thoroughfares, toward the town of Snizhne, near where Ukraine and the U.S. say the missile was fired. ”

The Guardian also reported on sightings inside Torez

Just before lunchtime last Thursday, prior to the Malaysia Airlines plane’s takeoff, a Buk was driven through Gagarin Street, one of the central thoroughfares of Torez, witnesses said.

Torez would later be the town where bodies of the victims were loaded on to refrigerated train cars. The tarmac on Gagarin Street is strewn with ruts made by tank treads, and locals say armoured vehicles controlled by separatists driving through the town have become a regular occurrence in recent weeks. The convoy last Thursday was different, however.

“We were inside and heard a noise much louder than usual,” said one shopkeeper, who did not want to be identified. “We came running out and saw a jeep disappearing into the distance with something much larger in front of it. Later, customers said it had been a missile carrier.”

In another shop further down the street, there was talk of a convoy of two jeeps and a missile launcher covered in a net driving past in the direction of the town of Snizhne. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” said a middle-aged woman. She said her husband showed her a photograph of a Buk launcher afterwards and she realised that was indeed what she had seen. A group of men also said they had seen a Buk.

Snizhne

AP reported on sightings of the Buk in Snizhne

It was lunchtime when a tracked launcher with four SA-11 surface-to-air missiles rolled into town and parked on Karapetyan Street.

Karapetyan Street is visible on Yandex Maps, with the position the Buk shown in the photograph from Snizhne shown below, on Karapetyan Street

140731-brown-moses-Buk-Map-3
Courtesy Eliot Higgins

The Ukraine@War blog also highlighted satellite map imagery shared by Storyful which showed track marks in the fields south of the location the Buk was seen driving south out of the town.  Ukraine@War also claims to have located the possible point of origin of a smoke trail reportedly photographed on July 17th as originating from the same area. The Daily Telegraph followed up this information, and found scorch marks in the same fields, although it should be noted this was not definite proof of launch sites.

Conclusion

Based on the above information alone it seems impossible to deny that the rebels were transporting a Buk Missile Launcher through the region on the same day as the downing of flight MH17.  It also demonstrates the Buk was transported from Donestsk, through Torez, while still on the transporter.  As yet there’s no images showing the Buk on the transporter in Snizhne, but based on the apparent destination of the Buk spotted in Torez is seems reasonable to believe it was the same missile launcher.

Finally, we know a Buk missile launcher, minus at least one missile, and the netting seen in other locations pre-launch, was spotted in the rebel held town of Luhansk, and it seems reasonable to assume this was after the downing of MH17.

Of course, there’s additional claims that have been made by various groups, something documented by The Interpreter in their timeline of events, but based videos and photographs there’s an extremely strong case for the Buk travelling through the region on the day of the attack, and I believe these should be considered facts that can act as a foundation for our understanding of the other claims and evidences pertaining to the down of the flight MH17.

Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigations tools and techniques.

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