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Sunday, 20 July 2014

How Social Sleuthing Uncovered Evidence of Surface-to-Air Missile Systems in Eastern Ukraine | Storyful Blog #MH17

How Social Sleuthing Uncovered Evidence of Surface-to-Air Missile Systems in Eastern Ukraine | Storyful Blog:




Screengrab from this video which shows debris falling from the sky at airliner crash site.
Reports emerged in the immediate aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17 that members of a Russian backed separatist militia had possession of a ‘Buk’ surface-to-air missile system prior to the incident. Evidence points to the separatists being in possession of the Russian-made ‘Buk’ missile system, or SA-11, which is capable of the attack which targeted the passenger plane, resulting in the loss of all 298 people on board.
As images and videos purporting to show the missile system in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine began to flood in, Storyful, alongside other journalists and social media experts in our Open Newsroom and elsewhere, worked to verify this information and determine the veracity of these claims. From the images and videos, we were able to determine that members of the Donetsk People’s Republic separatist militia, at the very least, did appear to have access to an anti-aircraft system capable of an attack like the one carried out on MH17.
It is important to note that the Ukrainian military is also in possession of the type of surface-to-air missiles which are purported to have been used in the attack. However, early statements from western officials point to the missiles be fired from a separatist controlled area.
While the investigation into the attack is likely to go on for an extended period of time, initial reports from the scene, gathered from several social platforms, provide insights into the crash and the location of a ‘Buk’ missile system in the separatist controlled area prior to the attack.
Social Accounts Show Evidence of Surface-to-Air Missile Systems
As early as June 29, information emerged from a Twitter account associated with the Donetsk People’s Republic, @DNRpress. The account had regularly supplied early information on the group, and was relied upon by Russian news organizations for information on separatist movement in the region. Russian News organization ITAR-TASS reported on the tweet at the time, providing a word for word reference back to the tweet in question. While the tweet has since been deleted, a cached copy of the information can be seenhere, and a screen grab is provided below.
@Dnrpress tweet
A translation of the tweet along with the original photo attached to it can be seen below. It is important to note that this photo dates at least as far back as June 2013. The statement references the takeover of the Ukrainian ‘A-1402′ military base, which this Russian report from June 29 references:


It appears that the A-1402 military unit was moved into the Donetsk region in 2007 from Odessa, and reports note that the unit was based near DonetskairportLocal reports from June 29 cited ATO spokesman Alexei Dmitrashkivsky as stating that separatists had attacked the military unit.
On Thursday, shortly before reports flooded in of the downed Malaysian airliner, a VK social media account associated with Igor Strelkov, commander of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, posted that a military transporter (An-26) was downed near Torez on July 17. No Ukrainian military statement on a downed AN-26 appears to have been made on July 17, and no video or images of a downed An-26 have emerged. The crash site of MH17 is located just north of the separatist controlled area of Torez.
While the VK post has since been removed, a tweet from @strelkov_info, directing users back to the VK post can be seen below. The tweet was posted at 17.16 EEST (14.16 GMT) on July 17. Malaysia Airlines indicated that it had lost contact with MH17 at approximately 14.15 GMT (17.15 EEST).
It contains the first several lines of the VK post which state:
“Message from the militia. / / In the area Torrez just downed aircraft, like the An-26”.


A screen grab of the VK post can be seen below, which also included other details. A translation from The Interpreter can be seen here:
“In the area of Torez, we have just shot down an AN-26 airplane, it is scattered about somewhere by the Progress coal mine. We warned them – don’t fly ‘in our sky.’ Here is a video confirmation of the latest ‘bird drop.’ The bird fell beyond the slag heap, it did not damage the residential sector. Civilians were not hurt. There is also information about a second downed airplane, apparently an SU.”


The post makes direct reference to the mining area north of Torez where the Malaysia Airlines plane crashed.
Russian news organization ITAR-TASS also posted about the alleged shooting down of an An-26 transporter, prior to the discovery that the Malaysian airliner had been downed. It is unclear if their information came from the Strelkov page, however it appears to have a word for word reference to the post, indicating that Russian news outlets have relied on this account for information. The Interpreter provided a detailed analysis of this VK page and its association with Strelkov and the militia of the Donestk People’s Republic. According to The Interpreter:
In our experience, unless Strelkov is speaking on camera in real-time with journalists present or with internal time-stamping and geolocation, it’s hard to accept completely any “dispatch” coming under his name in print on a web site. Yet in general, the posts from “Strelkov’s Dispatches” have been accurate at least in terms of relaying the news and notions of the separatists.
Images and Video Point to ‘Buk’ in the Area
In the aftermath of the attack, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal affairs released the video below, described as showing a ‘Buk’ anti-aircraft missile system being transported in eastern Ukraine, en route to the Russian border. The footage is not the original, however we believe that the first instance of this footage was removed by the uploader and the version below is the earliest we can find. We have been unable to independently verify the location of this footage due to the lack of distinguishing points of reference in the footage, however Ukrainian Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, claims that the video was filmed in the Ukrainian town of Krasnodon near the Russian border.
A second video posted on July 17, was described as showing a Buk traveling south near Snizhne, located southeast of the MH17 crash site. The video was geo-located to Snizhne by blogger Eliot Higgins (see the tweet beneath the video). This is not the original version of the video as we believe the original was removed, however we are unsure when it was recorded.
Note: In the first video above, the Buk is mounted on a truck. It doesn’t appear to be so in this second video, so there is a chance that they are different units.


A photo also emerged in the immediate aftermath of the crash purporting to show a ‘Buk’ system in Snizhne, which was later successfully geo-located to nearby Torez. The location of the photo can be seen on this map. created by Brown Moses, pseudonym of investigative blogger Eliot Higgins, who credited the geo-location to Twitter user @AricToler. The geo-location puts the Buk system at the intersection of 50 Years of the USSR Street and Gagarin Prospect (Улица 50 лет СССР & Проспект Гагарин).


Eyewitness Accounts of the Crash and Sightings of Missile System
Immediately following reports of the downing of MH17, Storyful worked to verify several videos from the crash site, including this video from an eyewitness showing debris falling from the sky. The footage is consistent with reports of a scattered debris field at the site of the crash, as well asinformation that the plane broke apart in mid-air.
The Ukrainian Security Service also released this unverified recording which allegedly featured a conversation with militant Igor Bezler telling a Russian security official that pro-Russian separatists shot down a plane. In the second audio clip, a militant, alias ‘Major,’ is heard saying the plane was shot down by ‘Cossacks’ from the ‘Chernukhino checkpoint.’ The third conversation mentions the location, Hrabovo, where the plane crashed. Storyful has not verified the voices on the recording.
US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power indicated during a briefing on July 18 that the evidence shows MH17 was “likely downed by a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, operated from a separatist held location in eastern Ukraine.” Power ruled out other surface to air missile systems known to be in the possession of separatist in the region as the likely weapons used in the attack, due to the fact that the flight was flying at 33,000 feet. She also made reference to an SA-11 (Buk) missile system being spotted in Snizhne (southeast of the crash site) on the morning of July 17 by western journalists. Power’s reference to a missile system which appeared to be a SA-11 comes from an Associated Press report reading: “Earlier Thursday, AP journalists saw a launcher that looked like a Buk missile system near the eastern town of Snizhne.”
As evidence continues to emerge following the downing of MH17, it has become clear the role that socially sourced images, video, and information will play in the investigation.
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