BRITISH experts will play a key role in establishing what downed flight MH17 amid renewed suggestions the wreckage of the stricken airliner may have been tampered with.
As the bodies of around 200 victims finally left rebel-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine yesterday, Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) would retrieve data from the plane’s black box recorders following a request from the Dutch government.
The development came as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said a range of sanctions would be drawn up to specifically target Russian president Vladimir Putin’s “cronies”.
The AAIB, which has investigated high-profile domestic air disasters including the Clutha helicopter crash and the downing of a Super Puma in the North Sea in 2009, will work alongside a team of international investigators who are at the crash site.
Yesterday, Malaysia’s prime minster, Najib Razak, said the flight recorders appeared to be “in good condition”, despite suggestions 24 hours earlier from Ukraine that Moscow-backed separatists had tampered with the equipment.
Last night police said forensic experts have begun identifying the victims. The Malaysian Airlines flight was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it came down last Thursday with the loss of 298 lives, including ten Britons.
Western governments including the UK and United States have pointed the finger at Moscow-backed secessionists, who are waging a bloody struggle with Kiev.
Experts based in Farnborough, Hampshire will retrieve data from the flight recorders for “international analysis”, Mr Cameron said in a tweet.
A spokesman for the Department for Transport said the AAIB team members were confident they will be able to retrieve all the information from the black boxes within 24 hours of receiving them. The AAIB will pass its findings to the Dutch authorities, who will decide what information can be made public.
From the cockpit voice recorder, the AAIB team will be able to hear what the pilots were saying in the moments before the plane came down. It is possible one of them saw something coming towards the aircraft.
After initially being denied access to the crash site by gunmen, monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) have spent the past few days inspecting the wreckage.
Yesterday, they said major pieces of the plane had been cut into – possibly to retrieve trapped bodies – and that many large parts of the aircraft now looked different to when they were first seen.
Ukrainian officials have repeatedly accused the separatists of contaminating the crash site and seeking to tamper with any remaining evidence.
The bodies of many of the victims finally began their long journey home yesterday.
Refrigerated freight train wagons containing body bags arrived in the city of Kharkiv yesterday. Though pro-Russian rebels claimed 282 bodies were on board, Dutch authorities said the number was 200.
They will now be transported to the Netherlands, where the majority of the dead were from.
The country’s prime minister, Mark Rutte, said Dutch officials hoped that the first flight carrying the victims would leave for the Netherlands today.
He said: “Once a positive identification has been made, the immediate next step will be to inform the next of kin. This may happen rapidly, but I have to caution you that it could take weeks or even months.”
He added that the Netherlands would lead the investigation into the shooting down of MH17, at the request of the Ukrainian government.
A British team, led by the Metropolitan Police, will help identify the victims in the Netherlands once bodies have arrived.
Following a meeting of European Union foreign ministers yesterday, Mr Hammond said there were “concrete proposals” to draw up a list of Mr Putin’s “cronies” who would be subject to sanctions, as well as looking at broader sanctions such as arms embargoes and access to capital and high-tech goods.
He said: “The cronies of Mr Putin and his clique in the Kremlin are the people who have to bear the pressure, because it is only them feeling the pressure that will in turn put pressure on the Russian government.”
However, there is still a lack of consensus, with many governments concerned to protect crucial Russian energy supplies and business ties with Moscow.
Mr Putin has vowed to use Russia’s influence with separatists in east Ukraine to allow a full investigation into the plane crash, but said the West must press Kiev to end hostilities.
Meanwhile, fighting continued to rage between the two sides in Ukraine yesterday. So far, the conflict is thought to have claimed more than 1,000 lives.