The chief lawyer of a Dutch-led team of international investigators said the missile and launcher used to shoot down a Malaysian Airlines plane over eastern Ukraine in July of 2014 came from the Russian military.
The long-running investigation had already had decided that a Russian-made Buk antiaircraft missile downed Flight 17. On Tuesday, the team announced that the launcher belonged to Russia's 53rd anti-aircraft brigade.
The announcement opens the possibility that the Dutch could sue the Russians for the attack that killed all 298 people on board.
The Russian Defense Ministry rejected the findings of the investigative team.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov questioned the fairness of the investigation.
“The investigation team had two main sources – the Internet and the Ukrainian special services," he said, adding that these two sources “cannot help but cause doubts."
Blaming Russia for the deaths of the European tourists on their way to Kuala Lumpur and bringing criminal charges against the Russian military or Russia’s government probably would worsen problems between the Kremlin and the West. After the attack on July 17, 2014, the West brought strong sanctions against Russia.
The Kremlin has always denied involvement in the incident
Since then, the Kremlin has argued with Europe and the United States over issues such as Russia’s support for the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the poisoning in March of a former Russian spy in Britain.
The investigative team “has come to the conclusion that the Buk TELAR by which MH17 was downed originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade from Kursk, in the Russian Federation,” said Wilbert Paulissen, the head of the criminal division of the Netherlands’ national police. He added that the convoy carrying the missile was a part of the Russian armed forces.
However, the team allowed for the possibility that the missile could have been fired by another party.
Konashenkov said no Russian missile launchers had ever been sent to the Ukraine to aid anti-Western rebels.
Rebel leaders said at the time that they were receiving military assistance from Russia. Investigators have been working hard to find out if Russian troops shot the missile or if it was Ukrainian rebels to whom the antiaircraft system had been given. The missile system is technically complex, and Western experts have said they do not believe the rebels would have had the technical expertise to target the plane.
The team said Thursday that the Buk missile system was brought to the Ukrainian shortly before the attack and went back to Russia shortly afterward.
Paulissen added that the investigators had “evidence that will stand in a courtroom.”
At the time of the attack, the battlefield in eastern Ukraine was filled with different armed groups. That spring, separatist fighters opposed to a new pro-Western government in Kiev seized control of territory in Ukraine’s industrial east. They were operating with Russian support, and Western journalists saw some Russian troops moving into eastern Ukraine that summer. The Russian government has long denied involvement in the conflict.
Vladimir Chizhov, Russian ambassador to the European Union, also dismissed the findings Thursday, saying, “This is an old story that was thrown into the informational environment back then, in 2014,” Interfax reported.
Rebels in eastern Ukraine on Thursday also denied possessing Russian weapons systems, Interfax reported, citing Eduard Basurin, a rebel official.
Flight 17 took off from Amsterdam and passed over eastern Ukraine on its way to Kuala Lumpur. In video footage from immediately after it was shot down, rebel fighters can be seen gathering in fields where most of the fuselage fell, celebrating what they thought was the downing of a Ukrainian military plane. Their celebration turned to worry when they realized it was a passenger jet.
The investigators on Thursday offered only open-source video and photographic evidence to support their decision that the missile came from a Russian military antiaircraft system. Some of the evidence already had been reported by the Bellingcat research group. But the international investigative team said that the decision was their own. They also said they had had additional information to back their decision, but would only release it in a courtroom.
Of the 298 people killed, 196 were Dutch, 42 were Malaysian and 27 were Australians. The victims were among more than 30 nationalities.
Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said the team is beginning the last part of the investigation.
Anybody charged criminally with the plane’s shooting down could face justice in Dutch courts, but it is unlikely that Russia would be willing to extradite citizens to face charges. Eastern Ukraine remains in the hands of pro-Russian rebels and Western police cannot enter the area.
Parts of the plane stretched across many miles of fields and small villages in eastern Ukraine. Bodies decayed in the hot July sun. Dutch-language travel books and card games from the children aboard the flight were spilled across the crash area.
I'm Susan Shand.
This story was reported by the Associated Press. It was adapted by Susan Shand and edited by Kelly J. Kelly.
Words in this story:
sue – v. to use a legal process by which you try to get a court of law to force a person, company, or organization that has treated you unfairly or hurt you in some way to give you something or to do something
tourist – n. a person who travels to a place for pleasure
sanctions – n. an action that is taken or an order that is given to force a country to obey international laws by limiting or stopping trade with that country, by not allowing economic aid for that country
fuselage – n. the main part of an airplane
open-source – adj. material that is available to anyone, not secret
extradite – v. to send a person who has been accused of a crime to another state or country for trial
decay – v. to be slowly destroyed by