MH17 probe pressed for time as winter approaches

A photo taken on Sept 9, 2014 shows part of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 at the crash site in the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), some 80km east of Donetsk. -- PHOTO: AFP
A photo taken on Sept 9, 2014 shows part of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 at the crash site in the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), some 80km east of Donetsk. -- PHOTO: AFP

TIME is running short for investigators to examine the crash site of Flight MH17 in restive eastern Ukraine as Malaysia's defence minister admitted that a four-day visit to meet European stakeholders did not result in an agreement for safe access before winter sets in.

The area where the Malaysia Airlines jet came down, killing all 298 people onboard, is expected to be covered under a blanket of snow in about a month's time, shrouding and damaging crucial evidence at the site of the wreckage.

Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein told a press conference yesterday that his trip last week succeeded only in "putting into place structures" between the various parties but that a reconnaissance team was fired at before reaching the site where the plane went down on July 17.

"Investigators are pressed for time as winter approaches. In some cases, (the stakeholders) were not talking to each other. It is still not safe," said Mr Hishammuddin.

The search for material at the crash area has been suspended for over a month due to heavy fighting and although most human remains have been recovered, some are still believed to be on the site. The West has accused Russia of supplying separatists in Ukraine with surface-to-air missiles, one of which was believed to have struck the Boeing 777, but Moscow blames Kiev for shooting it down while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

However, a Dutch preliminary report released on Sept 9 that said a large number of "high-energy" fragments brought down the plane has led Russia to call for a United Nations Security Council meeting that will take place today.

It was the second Malaysia Airlines plane lost in the space of four months after MH370 mysteriously disappeared on March 8 soon after taking off for a scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Giving an update on the search for the missing plane, Mr Hishammuddin said yesterday a GO Phoenix Mother Vessel - an oil exploration ship equipped with a towed sonar capable of searching up to a depth of 6km - has left for the search zone in the southern Indian Ocean. The vessel will arrive on Sept 25, where it will begin sweeping areas of up to 194 sq km per day.

The hunt for MH370 is set to cost Malaysia and Australia up to A$60 million (S$68 million) each, according to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

shannont@sph.com.sg