AFP/The Hague/Saint Petersburg
The Netherlands and Australia took the first step yesterday towards dragging Russia to court over the shooting down of flight MH17, accusing Moscow of being responsible for the disaster over war-torn eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The move won swift support from international allies, a day after investigators concluded that the Russian-made BUK missile which tore apart the Boeing 777 passenger plane in mid-air on July 17, 2014 came from a Russian military brigade based in southwestern Kursk.
“There is but one conclusion to be made from yesterday’s presentation, namely that Russia is thoroughly responsible for the deployment of this BUK system,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters.
All 298 people on the flight en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were killed when the missile slammed into the plane as it flew over territory held by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The Dutch government said in a statement that, together with Australia, it was holding Moscow “formally accountable” for the tragedy, and may now move towards submitting the complex dossier to an international judge or organisation.
Russia, however, swiftly denied any responsibility.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had been informed by his Dutch counterpart Stef Blok that “they have practically no doubt that the BUK came from Russia”.
“I asked him about facts proving these claims. He did not give me any facts, saying that they want Russia to help establish them based on unfounded suspicion,” Lavrov added.
“The downing of flight MH17 caused unimaginable suffering,” said Blok the day after the latest findings from the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT).
“On the basis of the JIT’s conclusions, the Netherlands and Australia are now convinced that Russia is responsible for the deployment of the BUK installation that was used to down MH17,” he added.
When asked yesterday at an economic forum in Saint Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the rocket that shot down flight MH17 in 2014 was “of course” not Russian.
The Russian leader added that there is “nothing that inspires confidence” in the international investigation and that “several versions” of what happened exist.
Piet Ploeg, who lost three relatives in the plane crash, told AFP that the Dutch and Australian decision to hold Russia responsible “is exactly the right thing to do”.
“It’s an important step on the way to get justice for victims,” Ploeg added.
The EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) both urged Moscow to accept responsibility for the disaster.
Russia should “fully co-operate with all efforts to establish accountability”, said the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in a statement.
The United States and Britain also said they backed the move to hold Russia responsible for the disaster.
“It is time for Russia to acknowledge its role in the shooting down of MH17 and to cease its callous disinformation campaign,” said US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko said that the Dutch and Australian decision “is an extremely important step for Russia to assume its responsibility for systematic violations of its international commitments”.
He added that he instructed “without delay” that proposals are prepared by Kyiv “for the possibility to join a trial launched by the Netherlands and Australia”.
Rutte urged Russia “to look seriously” at the results of the investigation, adding the Netherlands would demand Moscow’s full co-operation at a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine due to be held on Tuesday.
However, the Russian defence ministry also vehemently rejected the findings, saying that the missile “most likely belonged to the Ukrainians”.
Although the BUK missile had indeed been manufactured in the Soviet Union in 1986 “all the missiles made that year were withdrawn from service in 2011”, the ministry said.
Investigators, however, painstakingly recreated the BUK system’s route from Kursk across the border into rebel-held eastern Ukraine using videos and photos.
The team “has come to the conclusion that the BUK-TELAR that shot down MH17 came from the 53rd Anti-aircraft Missile Brigade based in Kursk in Russia”, top Dutch investigator Wilbert Paulissen said.
Investigation officials, seeking to bring criminal charges, have not said who actually fired the missile.
But they are appealing for further information, especially about the BUK system’s crew, and who ordered the plane to be shot down.
Meanwhile, the investigative site Bellingcat claimed it had identified the second of two men whom the JIT consider top suspects after obtaining wire-tapped conversations before and after the plane was shot out of the sky.
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