NIEUWEGEIN, Netherlands – An international criminal probe concluded that a missile which destroyed a Malaysian passenger jet over Ukraine in 2014 and killed all 298 people aboard was fired from rebel-controlled territory by a mobile launcher trucked in from Russia and hastily returned there.
The report, released Wednesday, was “solid proof” of a Russian role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Ukraine’s president said. But Moscow immediately denounced the findings of the Dutch-led inquiry as “biased and politically motivated.”
Investigators have identified 100 people they want to speak to who are believed to have been involved in transporting the Buk missile launcher or its use, chief prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said at a news conference.
The Boeing 777, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was blown out of the sky on July 17, 2014, in eastern Ukraine amid fierce fighting between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian troops. Ukraine immediately blamed the rebels, although they and the Kremlin have consistently denied any involvement.
The Joint Investigation Team, led by prosecutors and police from the Netherlands, made its preliminary findings public after interviewing more than 200 witnesses, listening to 150,000 intercepted phone calls, examining half a million photos and video recordings, consulting radar and satellite images, and sifting through dozens of containers filled with wreckage from the jet.
“It may be concluded MH17 was shot down by a 9M38 missile launched by a Buk brought in from the territory of the Russian Federation, and that after launch was subsequently returned to the Russian Federation,” said Wilbert Paulissen, head of the Dutch National Police Central Crime Investigation Department.
The surface-to-air weapon that destroyed the jetliner at 33,000 feet was fired from farmland in the rebel-held area of Pervomaiskiy, the investigation found. Witnesses there reported an explosion and a whistling sound, and a patch of field was set on fire.
The conclusions of the investigative unit, which included police and prosecutors from the Netherlands, Ukraine, Belgium, Australia and Malaysia, were consistent with earlier reporting by The Associated Press, which established soon after the jet’s destruction that a tracked Buk M-1 launcher with four surface-to-air missiles had been seen July 17 in the rebel-controlled town of Snizhne near Pervomaiskiy.
Families of the victims, about two-thirds of whom were Dutch, were told of investigators’ findings at a closed-door meeting earlier Wednesday.
Hans de Borst, whose 17-year-old daughter, Elsemiek, was aboard Flight 17, called it a “big relief” to learn that investigators believes the evidence painstakingly assembled over two years will stand up in court if suspects can be identified and brought to justice.
Last fall, a Dutch Safety Board investigation concluded the jetliner was brought down by a Buk, but those findings were not intended to be used in a criminal trial.
“The next question, of course, is who was responsible for this,” Westerbeke said. Pressed by journalists, the prosecutor declined to give more information about the 100 people believed to be involved, including whether any are Russian nationals.
“Who gave the orders?” Westerbeke asked. “Did the crew take its own decisions or were they operating on instructions from above?”
He appealed to “insider witnesses” to come forward, saying they could receive immunity or reduced sentences.
The prosecutor said he was “fully confident” the investigation would lead to a trial. But he said it was too early to decide which court could hear it.
“We won’t make that choice until we know who has to be tried,” Westerbeke said. At this point in the investigation, “we’re not making any statement about involvement of the Russian Federation as a country or of people from the Russian Federation,” he said.
Aamer Anwar, a lawyer who represents the family of the late Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, said it would be “extremely hard to bring anyone to justice” for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. But he added it was not impossible.
Getting Russia to agree to extradition looked to be “extremely difficult, near impossible,” Anwar said.
Toby Cadman, an international law specialist at the London law firm 9 Bedford Row, said it will be “a monumental challenge to get defendants before a national or international court.”
Malaysia had proposed setting up an international court to try those responsible for the plane’s destruction, but Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution in favour of a tribunal.
Russian officials were quick to reject the JIT’s conclusions.
“The findings of the Dutch prosecutor’s office confirmed that the investigation was biased and politically motivated,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “To this day, the investigation continues to ignore the overwhelming evidence from the Russian side, despite the fact that Russia is in fact the only one who sends accurate information and discloses all of the new data.”
Ukrainian officials, by contrast, called the findings an indication of Russian complicity.
“It is proved that the Buk had come into our territory from Russian territory,” Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko said. “After the crime, when terrorists tried to cover up traces, the Buk was immediately taken back to Russia. Thus, we have solid proof of who to blame for this dreadful crime and who bears full responsibility for the terrorist attack.”
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry added: “This again points to the direct involvement of the aggressor state in the downing of the aircraft.”
The U.S. State Department said the findings were “another step toward bringing to justice those responsible for this outrageous attack.”
The JIT report said investigators, using intercepted communications from pro-Moscow commanders, determined the Buk was in eastern Ukraine for only a day and a half, but that they were able to obtain photos and video chronicling its movements to and from Russia on the bed of a white Volvo truck.
As it sped out of Ukraine, it was seen in Luhansk with only three of its original four missiles, investigators determined. A telephone intercept provided by Ukraine indicated the Buk was back on Russian soil one day after the shootdown.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov denied that Russian air defence missile systems, including the Buk, have ever been sent to Ukraine.
Earlier this week, the Russian military said newly found data from radar in southern Russia showed that the missile that downed Flight 17 did not originate in rebel-controlled territory. It said it would give that data to investigators.
Dutch officials said they haven’t yet received the data, but they played down chances it would lead them to alter their findings.
“In this case, absence of evidence does not prove that it (the missile) was not there,” Paulissen said. “We have no doubt whatever that the conclusions we are presenting today are accurate.”
The Russian maker of the Buk missile system also contested the report’s conclusions. Mikhail Malyshevsky, an adviser to the chief designer of the state-controlled Almaz-Antei consortium, said an analysis of the plane’s shrapnel-ridden fragments show it couldn’t have been downed by a missile launched from a rebel-controlled area and more likely came from a village that Russian officials said was under Ukrainian control at the time.
JIT members faced extraordinary challenges in the probe. The site where the jet’s wreckage landed in Ukraine’s Donetsk region was in an active war zone. After the downing, pro-Kremlin militants limited access to the site.
Eleven containers of debris from the jetliner were ultimately brought to the Netherlands. A research team took soil samples and established the location of cellphone towers and the layout of the telephone network to verify intercepted phone calls from the militants.
Forensic samples were taken from luggage and the bodies of passengers and crew, and satellite data and communications intercepts were studied.
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Jill Lawless in London and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this story.