Malaysian PM: Don’t Remove Black Box Or Interfere With Evidence at Plane Crash Site

By Patrick Goodenough | July 17, 2014 | 9:03 PM EDT

People walk amongst the debris at the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine, Thursday, July 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

( – Malaysia’s prime minister called early Friday for an international investigation into the downing of a Malaysia Airlines aircraft over eastern Ukraine, saying no one should interfere with evidence at the crash site or remove the “black box” flight data recorder.

Those responsible must be brought to justice, Najib Razak told a brief press conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Earlier Russian media reported that pro-Russian separatists had taken possession of the black box and were willing to hand it over to Russian authorities for investigation. One outlet, Kommersant, reported that the recorder, which typically contains evidence vital to a crash inquiry, was already en route to Moscow.

Flight MH17, a Boeing 777 bound from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew members when it came down over separatist-controlled territory about 30 miles from the border with Russia, evidently as a result of a surface-to-air missile.

Najib told reporters that in a phone conversation he and President Obama had “agreed that the investigation will not be hidden and the international teams have to be given access to the crash scene. And no one should interfere with the area, or move any debris, including the black box.”

Najib said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had pledged there would be a full investigation, with Malaysian participation, and that his government would negotiate with the separatist rebels “in order to establish a humanitarian corridor to the crash site.”

“We will find out what happened,” Najib said. “If it transpires that the plane was indeed shot down, we insist that the perpetrators must be swiftly brought to justice.”

Since the end of the Cold War, air crashes in Russia and the loose grouping of former Soviet republics known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have been investigated by a Moscow-based body called the Interstate Aviation Committee, established in 1991.

Such a procedure would likely be unacceptable in this case, given the crisis in relations between Kiev and Moscow over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in south-eastern Ukraine, and mutual accusations of responsibility for the downing of flight MH17. (Ukrainian lawmakers angered by Russia’s intervention in their country began a process last May of officially withdrawing from the CIS.)

A State Department spokeswoman was unable to confirm reports that there were 23 Americans onboard flight MH17. As of early Friday morning, there still was no confirmation.

A woman reacts to news of the crash, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Friday, July 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Joshua Paul)

According to Malaysia Airlines, the vast majority of the 283 passengers on the Netherlands-originating flight were Dutch (154). Other passengers were from Malaysia (28), Australia (27), Indonesia (12), Britain (9), Germany (4), Belgium (4), the Philippines (3) and Canada (1).

Another 41 passengers’ nationalities had yet to be verified, the airline said. All 15 crew members were Malaysian nationals.

Dozens of the passengers on flight MH17 were delegates heading for a major AIDS medical conference in Melbourne, Australia.

“There are no words adequate to express our condolences to the families of the nearly 300 victims,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.

“We offer our sympathies and support to the governments of Malaysia and the Netherlands at this difficult time, as well as to all those whose citizens may have been on board. We are reviewing whether any American citizens were aboard the flight.”

Kerry said the U.S. was “prepared to assist with a credible, international investigation any way we can, and we will continue to be in touch with all relevant partners as we seek the facts of what happened today.”

'Full and transparent' investigation

Amid speculation about the wisdom of flying over a conflict zone, Najib pointed to a statement by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – an airline trade association –  to the effect that “based on the information currently available, it is believed that the airspace that the aircraft was traversing was not subject to restrictions.”

Several weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea last March – following a Moscow-backed referendum rejected by the West – the U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) issued a letter advising governments and air operators of a “potentially unsafe situation arising from the presence of more than one air traffic services provider in the Simferopol Flight Information Region” – the area controlled by authorities based at the main airport in Crimea.

The Federal Aviation Administration in turn then prohibited all U.S. carriers from flying in the area, saying the step was “necessary to prevent a potential hazard to persons and aircraft engaged in such flight operations.

Late Thursday the FAA expanded that prohibition to cover all of eastern Ukraine. The new notice added that “no scheduled U.S. airlines are currently flying routes through this airspace.”

ICAO stressed earlier Thursday that flight MH17 had come down “outside of the Simferopol FIR” – in other words not in the area covered by its April advisory  It said it stood ready to support the investigation into the crash.

U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has also called for a “full and transparent” international investigation into the plane’s downing, which Poroshenko has blamed on pro-Russian separatists, while the separatists and Putin have blamed on the Ukraine government.

The U.N. Security Council will hold an emergency session on Friday morning over the airline disaster, according to the ambassador of Rwanda, which holds the rotating presidency this month.

A draft statement to be considered at the meeting said the Security Council calls for “a full, thorough and independent international investigation into the incident in accordance with international civil aviation guidelines and for appropriate accountability.”

It further stresses “the need for all parties to grant immediate access by investigators to the crash site to determine the cause of the incident.’

Russia and the 14 other members of the council will all have to agree to the wording before the statement is adopted.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow