After a five-year probe, Dutch-led investigators said Wednesday that they will charge four suspects – including three Russians and a Ukrainian – with murder in the shootdown of Malaysian Flight MH17 over rebel-held eastern Ukraine, which killed 298 people.
The Boeing 777 was flying over territory held by pro-Russia separatists in July 2014 when it was shot down by a Russian-made Buk surface-to-air missile.
The flight was en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam on a flight path that took it over eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebel and Ukrainian soldiers were fighting. The victims included 193 Dutch citizens, 43 Malaysians and 27 Australians.
The four suspects were all leaders of a breakaway “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” set up by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Dutch national police chief Wilbert Paulissen, at a news conference at The Hague, identified the suspects as:
• Sergey Dubinsky, a former Russian intelligence officer who was head of intelligence for the breakaway republic in 2014;
• Oleg Pulatov, Dubinsky’s deputy;
• Igor Girkin the so-called defense minister of the rebel republic and a former Russian intelligence colonel;
• Leonid Kharchenko, the head of a battalion of insurgents who was at the location where the missile that shot down the plane had been installed.
The probe was conducted by the Joint Investigation Team, or JIT, which is made up of detectives and prosecutors from the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine.
It remains unclear who actually pushed the button is launch the missile, but investigators said even if the four suspects may not have been the button-pusher, they were implicated in the preparations of the launch, making it sufficient to charge them.
International warrants were issued for their arrest, Paulissen said. The case is set to begin March 9 in the highly secure courtroom in The Hague.
Asked how likely it is that the suspects will report to the courtroom next year, chief public prosecutor Fred Westerbeke told Dutch TV NOS: “I am a realist and don’t think the odds are high.”
Still, he said “in the short term we will ask Russia to hand the summons to the suspects.” He added that “we will ask for Russia to cooperate again with legal help.”
The Russian foreign ministry on Wednesday said it regrets the “absolutely hollow” claims by the JIT that Russian servicemen were involved in the incident, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.
“The statements made by the Joint Investigation Team in the course of their press conference … provoke nothing but pity,” the statement read.
Girkin, the rebels’ so-called “defense minister,” denies that he is involved in the shootdown, telling Interfax that he would not testify in the court case.
Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuri Lutsenko said at the news conference, however, that Kiev authorities intends to arrest Kharchenko.
“We will attempt to arrest this person,” he told reporters. “We will do everything we can.”
The families of those killed will be informed of developments at a behind-closed-doors meeting ahead of a news conference by investigators.
Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand, whose son Bryce and his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers were among the dead, said it is high time investigators named suspects and set a date for a trial.
“We have been waiting for five years,” she said in a telephone interview on the eve of the announcement. “It has to happen sometime.”
The investigators said previously that they were convinced that the Buk missile system used to shoot down flight MH17 came from the Russian army’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile brigade, based in the Russian city of Kursk.
Russia has always denied responsibility for shooting down the flight and claimed last year that the missile came from Ukrainian army arsenals.
The Netherlands and Australia have said they hold Moscow responsible for providing the Buk missile system used in the downing.
Contributing: Associated Press