UK investigators downloading MH17 black box data

Farnborough (United Kingdom) (AFP) - British air accident investigators on Wednesday began downloading information from the black boxes recovered from the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which could identify what led to its fate.

The recorders, salvaged from the wreckage of the plane in eastern Ukraine, were delivered to the Air Accidents Investigation Branch headquarters in Farnborough, southwest of London, by Dutch experts.

AAIB experts began the task of extracting information from the cockpit voice recorder, which should give them hours of pilots' conversations, as well as the contents of the flight data recorder.

The AAIB, a branch of the Department for Transport, is "taking the data off and feeding that into the international investigation," a DfT spokesman told AFP.

"They expect it to take up to 24 hours per box. It may be less, it may be more if they find damage to the boxes, for example.

"It's under way already."

The recorders will be worked on one box at a time.

The boxes -- which are actually orange in colour -- were delivered to Farnborough by the Dutch Safety Board (OVV), which is leading an international investigation into the crash.

The OVV is coordinating investigation teams from eight different countries, including Russia.

Pro-Russian rebels controlling the crash site handed the boxes over to Malaysian officials on Tuesday, following an intense international outcry over the treatment of the wreckage and the bodies of the victims.

Western governments say the evidence points to the Boeing 777 plane having been shot down with a missile by pro-Russian separatists. All 298 people on board, 193 of them Dutch citizens, were killed.

The OVV said that analysis of the information on the black boxes could take "several weeks".

"The black boxes will also be analysed for evidence of tampering," it said in a statement.

"The investigation in Ukraine is in full swing," it said.

"Despite investigators not having safe access to the crash site, work is being done in Kiev and the Netherlands to gather and analyse information from different sources.

"If the investigation shows evidence of any criminal or terrorist activities, the information will subsequently be submitted to the relevant authorities."

The Dutch agency said its investigation "will focus on ascertaining facts, rather than apportioning blame."

- Flags at half-mast -

Experts speculated as to how much information would be found on the recorders as to why the plane came down, if it was suddenly struck.

Former aircraft accident investigator Tony Cable told the BBC: "The cockpit voice recorder could conceivably record the sound of shrapnel hitting the aircraft from the missile, which is assumed to be the cause, possibly followed by the sound of the warhead then exploding."

Ukraine's government said the black boxes were transferred to Britain under the observation of the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organisation.

The recorders were flown out of Kiev following an agreement between ICAO and Malaysian, Dutch and Ukrainian officials, it said.

It said the black boxes "did not remain under Ukrainian control for even one minute."

Meanwhile the British and Dutch flags were being flown at half-mast at Prime Minister David Cameron's Downing Street office.

The AAIB is responsible for investigating civil aircraft accidents and serious incidents in Britain but it also provides assistance and expertise to the "international air accident community" worldwide.

It says it aims to conduct "thorough, independent, impartial and timely investigations".

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