MH17 crash probe set to name suspects

MH17 crash probe set to name suspects

International investigators said the BUK missile which hit the Malaysian Airlines aircraft had originated from a Russian military brigade
International investigators said the BUK missile which hit the Malaysian Airlines aircraft had originated from a Russian military brigade

THE HAGUE: International investigators are on Wednesday expected to announce charges against four suspects including a Russian officer in the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine five years ago.

The Dutch-led probe was to hold a press conference at 1100 GMT (6pm in Thailand), after first informing families of the 298 people who died on board the Malaysia Airlines plane.

The development comes nearly a year after the same investigative team said the BUK missile which hit the Boeing 777 had originated from a Russian military brigade based in the southwestern city of Kursk.

Ukraine's deputy foreign minister Olena Zerkal said four people would be named over MH17 and that it involved senior Russian army officers.

"The names will be announced. Charges will be brought, Zerkal told Interfax-Ukraine news agency on Tuesday, adding that a Dutch court would then "start working to consider this case".

Zerkal said the transfer of weapons like the BUK anti-aircraft missile system "is impossible without the (Russian) top brass's permission".

Dutch media have named several suspects including the head of the 53rd anti-aircraft brigade, the Russian unit identified by the probe last year.

Russia has vehemently denied all involvement in the shooting down of MH17. On Wednesday it complained of being excluded from the probe despite "proactively" trying to be involved.

"You know our attitude towards this investigation. Russia had no opportunity to take part in it even though it showed initiative from... the very first days of this tragedy," President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

- 'First step to trial' -

The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) probing the attack -- which includes Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine -- has declined to confirm that it will announce charges.

The airliner travelling between Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and Kuala Lumpur lost contact with air traffic control about four hours after take-off.

It was torn apart in mid-air on July 17, 2014 over territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists with wreckage spread over a wide area.

The Netherlands and Australia said in May last year that they formally "hold Russia responsible" for the disaster, after the findings on the origin of the missile were announced.

Of the passengers who died, 196 were Dutch and 38 Australian. Any trial is likely to be in the Netherlands where the majority of the victims came from.

The suspects could be tried in absentia as Russia does not extradite its nationals for prosecution, said Dutch broadcaster RTL, quoting anonymous sources.

"We hope it will be announced that specific suspects will be brought to justice, and yes, we hope for names and positions of suspects and for information about the next steps," Piet Ploeg, president of a Dutch victims' association who lost three family members on MH17, told AFP.

"That is indeed a very important step towards a case before a Dutch court. After five years, it is finally clear that justice will be done. This is very important for surviving relatives."

Investigative website Bellingcat on Wednesday named a series of Ukrainian separatists that it said were linked to the downing of MH17, based on phone intercepts previously revealed by the Dutch-led team.

- Russian denials -

The Dutch safety board said in 2015 that the plane had been hit by a BUK missile, with the JIT reaching the same conclusion in 2016.

Then in May 2018 the JIT said MH17 was shot down by a BUK missile from Russia's 53rd brigade, but that they were still searching for suspects.

They showed videos and animation of the BUK launcher as part of a Russian military convoy, using video clips found on social media and then checked against Google Maps, as it travelled from Kursk to eastern Ukraine.

Investigators said they had also identified a 'fingerprint' of seven identifying features that were unique to the BUK including a military number on the launcher.

Russia insisted last year that the missile was fired by Kiev's forces, adding that it was sent to Ukraine in the Soviet era and had not been returned to Russia.

The war in eastern Ukraine and the MH17 disaster continue to plague relations between Russia and the West.

Since 2014, some 13,000 people have been killed in the war in the east, which broke out after a popular uprising ousted Ukraine's pro-Kremlin president and Russia annexed Crimea.

Kiev and its Western backers accuse Russia of funnelling troops and arms to back the separatists. Moscow has denied the claims despite evidence to the contrary.

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