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Understanding a disaster: MH17 crash explained

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MH17 'an outrage of unspeakable proportions'

President Barack Obama says a surface-to-air missile fired from territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine was responsible for shooting down a Malaysian plane.

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A summary of what is known and not known about the crash.

Where is the site of the wreckage?

The plane came down in fields near the village of Grabovo, in the rebel-held region of eastern Ukraine. The debris is scattered over 15 square kilometres.

On site at the MH17 crash scene.

On site at the MH17 crash scene. Photo: AFP

Who was on the plane?

There were 298 people on board - 15 crew and 283 passengers. Eighty of the passengers were children, including three infants. Most of the passengers - 192  - were Dutch. Australia had 28 citizens on board.

Who is responsible? 

US officials have concluded that the plane was shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile launched from rebel-held territory and that the missile was most likely provided to pro-Moscow separatists by Russia....

What kind of missile shot down the plane?

US intelligence officials believe the missile responsible for shooting down the plane was a Russian-made SA-11, also known as a Buk or a Gadfly. The SA-11 system fires missiles that are about 18 feet long and have a maximum range of 72,000 feet.

Any of the military forces in the area - the pro-Russia separatists, the Ukrainian military and the Russian military - could possess an SA-11.

Where was the missile launched from?

A US official said the missile was launched near the cities of Torez and Snizhne.

Why was MH17 flying over Ukraine?

Flight 17 was flying on an active airway that had been open and in use at higher elevations throughout the conflict in Ukraine. Before the crash, Russia closed part of the airway that the plane would have followed if it had continued into Russian airspace. But the closing applied only to planes traveling under 32,000 feet; the Malaysia flight was above that level.

Malaysia Airlines was not alone in flying over eastern Ukraine. A survey of flights to Asia from Europe in the past week found that other airlines were also flying over the region. Some, however, appeared to have been avoiding the area even before the crash.

What is happening at the wreckage site?

Pro-Russian rebels are in charge of the site. Local coal miners are among the people scouring the site to identify where bodies lie.

The rebels allowed 17 investigators from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to examine the wreckage for about 75 minutes on Friday before forcing them to leave.

Australia, the Netherlands, the United States, Malaysia and United Nations air safety arm, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, are sending investigators to help Ukraine authorities. Boeing is on stand-by, ready to assist.

What now for the families of Australian victims?

Malaysia Airlines will fly relatives to Ukraine when appropriate, to visit the site where MH17 was shot down. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said arrangements are in place to help repatriate Australian victims but that "is likely to be weeks" away. A team of Australian consular officials are in Kiev to help.

What has been Australia’s response?

Tony Abbott has taken a tough stance against Russia, which has supported the rebels in eastern Ukraine. He said the missile that brought down the plane was most likely supplied by Russia and that Russia cannot try to blame others for what has happened.

His words were similar to those of US President Barack Obama, who said Russian President Vladimir Putin had the most control over the situation but was yet to exercise it.

How have Russia and separatist groups responded to accusations that they were involved?

Both have denied responsibility. Some rebel leaders suggest that Ukraine's armed forces may have shot down the plane.  Russia said Tony Abbott’s statements attributing guilt were unacceptable. It has pointed the finger at Ukraine, saying the tragedy is a consequence of Ukraine escalating the conflict against the rebels.

What happened at the UN Security Council meeting?

The council called for a full, thorough and independent international investigation into the incident, in accordance with the international civil aviation guidelines and for appropriate accountability. It called on all parties to grant investigators immediate access to the crash site. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was due to leave for the US on Saturday night to lead Australia's campaign at the Security Council for an independent international investigation.

with the New York Times

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