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Russian investigators failed to prove a Ukrainian missile brought down a Russian passenger jet plane in October 2001, a Ukrainian court said Aug. 21 in upholding an earlier court ruling.
Four Israeli families had filed the lawsuit seeking compensation after the crash of the Tu-154 jet belonging to Sibir airlines, now called S7, while it was flying from Tel Aviv to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. The plane went down in the Black Sea, killing all 66 passengers and 12 crew members aboard.
Investigators from the Interstate Aviation Committee, or IAC, a Moscow-led air safety group linking 12 ex-Soviet republics, later determined that the plane had been unintentionally shot down by a missile fired by Ukrainian forces during military exercises on the Crimean peninsula.
But Kyiv's Appeals Court rejected the Israeli families' appeal, upholding a lower court's January ruling that the agency's findings did not support its determination.
The plane was carrying mostly Russian-born Israeli immigrants headed back to Russia to visit relatives. The four Israeli families were seeking $1.1 million each from the Ukrainian government.
The court decision challenges the account of the crash widely accepted in Russia, and could anger Moscow, which dominates the IAC. The group investigated the accident on Russia's behalf.
The court, which did not consider what caused the crash, has several days to release an explanation for its ruling.
But a lawyer representing the Ukrainian government asserted that the plane was not downed by a missile.
"It couldn't have been that missile," Andriy Kozlov told The Associated Press.
Kozlov said the IAC's conclusions were rife with errors, contradictions and severe procedural violations. He said its documents contain discrepancies ranging from several seconds to one minute about the exact time the missile was fired and about its subsequent movement.
In court, he also said that Russian investigators miscalculated the distance the missile would have covered based on the average speed of such missiles.
The IAC report also contradicted itself with some documents saying the plane was destroyed in the air, while others said the plane broke apart after hitting the water, Kozlov told AP. Some materials indicated that "control over the missile had been lost," while elsewhere the report said "surveillance of the plane was performed by radar until the moment the missile initiated its explosive mechanism," according to the lawyer.
"We don't know what brought the plane down," he said. "It was the job of the investigators and special services to find out what really exactly happened. Unfortunately, they failed."
Kozlov said some victims' bodies contained small metal balls that resemble those of the missile payload, but no floating components or other traces of the missile were found at the crash site. He said the balls could have been taken from other sources and used in any explosive device.
Ukrainian investigators determined that the metal balls used in such missile payloads are usually identical to one another, while the balls found at the crash site were varied, suggesting no such missile was involved, Kozlov said.
An S-200, also known as SA-5, a large surface-to-air missile built to shoot down aerial targets, in particular heavy bombers and AVACS planes flying at high altitudes, was fired during the exercise just minutes before the plane went down. Such missiles work by exploding near the target and riddling it with shrapnel.
The IAC investigators had concluded that an explosion took place about 50 feet above the plane and 5 feet to the left of its tail, but some fragments of the plane indicated the blast rocked the jet from within, while the bodies of passengers sitting in the back of the plane had wounds going from right to left as well as frontal wounds, Kozlov said.
Ukraine first denied that its missile was involved, and Russian officials initially said they trusted their Ukrainian colleagues, while investigators focused on the possibility of a terrorist attack. But then Moscow shifted tack, with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying he considered the proof offered by Ukrainian officials inadequate.
Ukraine later conceded that its military was involved in the accident, and paid families $200,000 for each victim. Some Israeli families, however, did not accept the compensation and filed the suit.
Representatives of the families did not attend the Aug. 21 hearing.
A separate lawsuit against the Ukrainian government, filed by S7 airlines, is still being considered.