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Early MH17 findings open up legal avenue for MAS

[SINGAPORE] A preliminary 34-page report on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash has effectively cleared Malaysia Airlines of blame in terms of aircraft condition, flight route and the crew's competence, concluding instead that the Boeing 777 "broke up in the air" after being hit by "high-energy objects" from outside.

"To date, no indications of any technical or operational issues were found with the aircraft or crew," said the report by the Dutch Safety Board which was released on Tuesday.

The findings by the Dutch investigators on the July 17 fatal crash over strife-torn eastern Ukraine which killed 283 passengers and 15 crew members, however stopped short of pinning the blame on a missile attack.

The report concluded that the plane broke up in mid air based on the many pieces of the aircraft which were distributed over a large area. Parts of the aircraft wings, both engines, the main landing gear and a portion of the fuselage which were subjected to post-crash fire were distributed some 8.5 kilometres from the flight's last recorded position.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak welcomed the preliminary report: "The report confirms that MH17 was flying in unrestricted airspace under the control of local air traffic controllers, and following a route and altitude cleared by air traffic control. The aircraft was fully airworthy with no reported faults, and the crew acted properly."

"This leads to the strong suspicion that a surface to air missile brought MH17 down, but further investigative work is needed before we can be certain," Mr Najib added. Observers say that for ailing and disaster-struck Malaysia Airlines, a "possible legal angle" may arise following the early findings of the report, but it could take time to come to fruition given the complexities involved.

In short - if it is concluded that MH17 was downed by a missile, as the early findings appear to allude to, Malaysia's state-owned airline could take legal action against the parties responsible. But therein, lies the challenges.

Kiev and the West have pointed the finger at pro-Russian rebels for shooting down the Kuala Lumpur-bound plane with a BUK missile supplied by Moscow. The pro-Russian separatists have denied any possession of the weapon while Kremlin had previously suggested that the missile was from a Ukrainian fighter plane.

"Technically, the perpetrators need to be first identified. If the rebels are allegedly responsible, who do you go after? No point going after the rebels. But if it's proven that Russia was behind the scene and had provided the weapon, there may be a case," said a highly-placed Malaysian source.

The report had also highlighted other findings that cemented the general suspicion that the ill-fated jetliner was downed by a missile. The aircraft wreckage had "multiple holes and indentations" - these holes with material deformation were found on the cockpit roof, floor and window - which indicate that the plane was punctured by the high-energy objects from outside.

There was no evidence or indications of manipulation of the flight recorders.

The full 30 minutes of the cockpit voice recorder was downloaded; the recording ended at 1.20pm - which is when it was presumably hit - and showed no warnings or alerts of aircraft malfunctions while the crew communication gave no indication that there was anything abnormal in the flight nor was there any distress messages received by the Air Traffic Control (ATC).

The report said that the flight recorders were not recovered from the wreckage by the investigators but by "individuals unknown to the team" who had taken them from the site. They were then handed over to a Malaysian official in Donetsk by members of the armed group in control of the area, afterwhich the recorders were passed on to the Dutch investigators.

The report also said that there were three other commercial aircraft in the same area as MH17 at the time of the crash with the closest aircraft being some 30 km away from the tragic plane.

"It is of the utmost importance that the investigation teams gain full and unfettered access to the crash site," said Mr Najib, adding that a Malaysian team had left for Ukraine on Monday.

This was crucial to "recover all human remains, complete their investigation and establish the truth", he added.