The Washington Post

Malaysia Airlines downing

- BY MICHAEL BIRNBAUM Quentin Ariès contribute­d to this report.

Dutch-led investigat­ors said the missile that shot down a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014 came from the Russian military.

BRUSSELS — A Dutch-led internatio­nal team of investigat­ors said Thursday that a missile that downed a Malaysia Airlines jetliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014 came from the Russian military, opening the possibilit­y that Dutch prosecutor­s could sue the Kremlin in connection with the attack that killed all 298 on board.

The long-running inquiry already had establishe­d that a Russian-made Buk antiaircra­ft missile downed Flight 17, but it had not previously made a direct link to the Russian military. The Kremlin always has denied involvemen­t in the incident.

Criminal charges against the Russian military or Russia’s government probably would exacerbate tensions between the Kremlin and the West even further, implicatin­g Russian officials in the deaths of European tourists on their way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The attack on July 17, 2014, led to a crushing round of Western sanctions against Russia.

Since then, the Kremlin has clashed with Europe and the United States over issues such as Russia’s support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, the attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidenti­al election and the nerve agent 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, head of the crime squad of the Dutch national police. “All of the vehicles in the convoy carrying the missile were part of the Russian armed forces.”

However, they left open the possibilit­y that the missile could have been fired by another party.

At the time of the attack, eastern Ukraine was seething with multiple armed groups. That spring, separatist fighters opposed to a new pro-Western government in Kiev seized control of broad patches of territory in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland. They were operating with Russian support, and Western journalist­s also spotted at least some Russian troops moving into eastern Ukraine that summer. The Russian government has long denied direct involvemen­t in the conflict.

Investigat­ors have been working to determine whether Russian troops shot down the plane or whether it was Ukrainian rebels to whom the antiaircra­ft system had been supplied. The missile system is technicall­y complex, and Western diplomats have long said they doubted that the rebels would have had the technical expertise to target the high-flying jet.

The investigat­ive team said Thursday that the Buk missile system was towed to Ukrainian territory shortly before the attack and towed back to Russian territory shortly afterward.

Paulissen added that the investigat­ors possessed “legal and convincing evidence that will stand in a courtroom.”

Vladimir Chizhov, Russian ambassador to the European Union, dismissed the findings, saying, “This is an old story that was thrown into the informatio­nal environmen­t back then, in 2014,” the Interfax news agency 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, packed with Dutch tourists. In video footage from immediatel­y after it was shot down, rebel fighters can be seen gathering in the sunflower fields where the bulk of the fuselage fell, celebratin­g what they thought was the downing of a Ukrainian military aircraft. Their celebratio­n turned to concern when they realized that it was a civilian jetliner.

The debris of the plane stretched across dozens of miles. Corpses rotted in the hot July sun. Dutch-language travel guides and card games from the children aboard the flight were scattered across the crash site.

Of the 298 people killed, 196 were Dutch, 42 were Malaysian, and 27 were Australian. The victims represente­d more than 30 nationalit­ies, including a joint Dutch American citizen.

The investigat­ors Thursday offered only open-source video and photograph­ic evidence to support their conclusion that the missile came from a Russian military antiaircra­ft system. Portions of the evidence already had been reported by the Bellingcat research group. But the internatio­nal investigat­ive team said that its findings stood independen­tly and that it possessed additional informatio­n to buttress its conclusion­s that it would announce only in eventual courtroom proceeding­s.

“We are entering the last phase of the investigat­ion,” Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said.

Anybody charged criminally in connection with downing the plane would face justice in Dutch courts, but it is unlikely that Russia would be willing to extradite citizens to face charges, and eastern Ukraine remains in the hands of pro-Russian rebels, inaccessib­le to Western law enforcemen­t.

Separately on Thursday, the European Union announced the settlement of a long-running investigat­ion of Gazprom, the Russian natural gas giant, in connection with unfair business practices in Eastern Europe. The seven-year inquiry had deep political implicatio­ns because Eastern European countries accused the Kremlin of using energy supplies as a weapon against government­s that opposed Russian policies.

The settlement announced by Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s antitrust official, allows Gazprom to avoid multibilli­ondollar fines in exchange for a pledge to allow gas to flow freely through Eastern Europe at market rates. The measures are intended to help the region, which is highly dependent on Russian gas, to be more resilient against political pressures on energy supplies.

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