GILZE-RIJEN (Netherlands) • Air crash investigators have concluded that Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down by a missile fired from war-torn eastern Ukraine last year, killing all 298 people on board.
Even before the highly anticipated release of the official report on the disaster by a Dutch-led investigation, Russian officials were disputing the findings, which are sure to further degrade strained ties between Moscow and the West.
"Flight MH17 crashed as a result of the detonation of a warhead outside the airplane against the left-hand side of the cockpit," the chairman of the Dutch Safety Board, Mr Tjibbe Joustra, told a press conference yesterday.
"This warhead fits the kind of missile that is installed in the BUK surface-to-air missile system."
While he insisted investigators had not pinned down the exact location of the missile's launch site, maps shown to reporters displayed the area near Donetsk held by pro-Russian separatists who were accused of taking down the plane.
Mr Joustra also hit out at the Ukrainian authorities for allowing civil aircraft to continue to fly above the eastern part of the country despite the raging conflict between Kiev's forces and pro-Russian separatist insurgents.
"We have concluded as a precaution there was sufficient reason for the Ukrainian authorities to close the air space above the eastern part of their country," he said.
Relatives earlier emerged visibly shaken after being briefed by Mr Joustra at a conference centre in The Hague about the fate of the Boeing 777, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it crashed on July 17 last year.
"They showed us the fragments that were inside the plane," said one relative, Mr Robby Oehlers, adding that "it was so quiet, you could have heard a pin drop".
The White House called the report an "important milestone" in the effort to hold accountable those responsible for the disaster.
The findings were swiftly disputed by the missile maker, Russian company Almaz-Antey. It claimed the damage to MH17 pointed to the use of an older type of missile.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov called the report "biased".
He said: "Despite all of Russia's repeated and lengthy attempts to organise the investigation in such a way that it is comprehensive and unbiased, and for it to consider all the information we have... there is an obvious attempt to draw a biased conclusion, and carry out political orders."
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, meanwhile, blamed Russia's security service.
"I personally have no doubt that this was a planned operation of the Russian special services aimed at downing a civilian aircraft," he told a televised Cabinet meeting.
The Dutch Safety Board, which led the international team of investigators, made 11 recommendations in the report and said countries in conflict must improve efforts to protect civilian aircraft.
But it has stressed that its mandate was not to determine who pulled the trigger, amid a separate criminal probe by a team of Dutch-led prosecutors that said it had identified "persons of interest" without naming anyone. Prosecutors have also pointed out that the probe will not finish this year.
But to the relatives of some victims, this is closure.
"Even if the report doesn't name those responsible, it will still allow us to close some doors, to have some answers," said Belgian Pierre Chardom, who lost his 51-year-old brother Benoit in the crash.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS