Investigators on the hunt for those responsible for downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine are now convinced the Russian military played a pivotal role in providing the deadly missile.
- JIT has called for witnesses to come forward with information
- 298 people, including 38 Australians, died when the plane was shot down in 2014
- Families have said Russian world cup will have a ‘different, dark meaning’
This is the first time the official investigators have named the Russian Federation’s 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade based in Kursk.
At a briefing in the Netherlands, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which includes Australian officers, showed video and pictures of the path taken by the truck transporting the missile across the border.
Investigators displayed the remnants of the Buk missile at the press conference. (ABC News: Lisa Millar)
Wilbert Paulissen, the head of the National Crime Squad of the National Police of the Netherlands, said the JIT wanted witnesses to urgently come forward.
“We are looking for people who were directly involved,” he said.
“We have four questions — who was part of the team, what instructions where they given and by whom.
“Also who was responsible for the operational deployment.
“And finally, who can provide us with most information about the procedures in this brigade?” Mr Paulissen said.
He said they were convinced family, friends or acquaintances would have the answers.
38 Australians were among the 298 people who died when the plane was shot down. (Reuters: Maxim Zmeyev)
The Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down on July 17, 2014.
All 298 people onboard, including 38 Australians, were killed.
It was just 50 kilometres from the Ukraine-Russia border and the investigation into who brought it down continues.
The deadly incident happened during the war in Donbass.
But Russia’s defence ministry said it had nothing to do with the downing of the plane, Interfax news agency reported.
The military denied any missile complex had ever crossed the border between Russia and Ukraine, according to a report from TASS news agency.
The Dutch Safety Board concluded in October 2015 that a Buk surface-to-air missile was fired at the plane.
A year later the Dutch-led JIT concluded the missile had been brought into Ukraine from Russia on the day of the crash and fired from a pro-Russian rebel-controlled area and then the launcher moved back across the border to Russia.
At that time roughly 100 people had been identified as witnesses or suspects but no names were released.
Australian Federal Police Commander Jennifer Hurst pointed to details about the BUK that revealed its origins, including the year of production, 1986, and the unique identification number.
“We urgently appeal to everyone, anywhere in the world who can give the investigation team information on the following,” she said.
She said details about the handwriting on the casing and the numbers were needed.
Investigators say the unique identification number helped reveal the missiles origin. (ABC News: Lisa Millar)
Fred Westerbeke, the chief prosecutor of the national prosecutor’s office of the Netherlands, said the call for witnesses was the natural next step.
“I’m sorry if we sound desperate, we are not desperate,” he said.
“We are progressing in a good way and we are confident we are going to finish in a good way.”
Ms Hurst said the families of the victims needed to know that the JIT was “absolutely committed to this investigation”.
“We have 298 precious reasons why we are sticking with this investigation,” she said.
“We are committed to it and we will be here for the long haul.”
Bishop says Russia has questions to answer
Analysis by Phil Williams
Julie Bishop is not one to emote. Her steely composure serves her well as she navigates the minefield of international relations. But on MH17, there is more than a hint that this is beyond just the professional. There is no doubt she feels for the victims, all 298 of them and their loved ones. During an interview in Canberra she told me “we will not give up until we get those answers”.
It’s personal because she spent days pressing the United Nations for a resolution that set the groundwork for the current investigations. And she spent several weeks in Ukraine negotiating the return of the remains of the victims, and for access for specialist teams to gather evidence at what was at all times a dangerous site close to the fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces.
“We don’t understand the motive, that’s why there are questions that must be answered,” she says.
I ask her about the possibility diplomatic relations with Moscow could be severed over MH17.
“I’m not going to speculate on further steps, we are taking into account this new information,” she said. “We are considering what options are available to us. I’m not ruling out any possibility.”
Already the relationship between Canberra and Moscow is at a low. MH17 has been one of the major factors but others include the annexation by Russia of Crimea and the alleged meddling in US and other elections.
It is about to find a new depth. Just how far the ‘grieving nations’ go will depend on talks over the next day or so.
In the recent budget there was $50 million allocated to help fund a legal case centring in the Netherlands against those responsible for the MH17 atrocity. I ask our Foreign Minister if attempts to prosecute anyone in the Russian military or government would be futile. She reminds me of the seriousness of the crime and says simply those responsible must be held accountable.
There is no doubt the Russian Government will vehemently deny any knowledge, or responsibility for the attack. Nor will it hand over suspects either from its military or the Kremlin. But the message will be received by all tempted to break the norms of conflict. You do so at your peril and some day, perhaps in the distant future, justice will be done.
Maybe, but it won’t come cheaply or without sustained effort. Those are conditions our Foreign Minister appears more than willing to meet and, if necessary, raise.
Speaking to the ABCs The World, Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said Russia must answer questions about why a Russian military-owned missile has been confirmed as the missile used in the downing of flight MH17.
“Well, the Russian Federation must answer how it is that a sophisticated weapon, a Buk missile, was transported from Russia into Eastern Ukraine and was used to bring down a civilian aircraft carrying 298 people and then was immediately taken back into Russia,” Ms Bishop told The World.
“We understand now that this missile was fired from an agricultural field that at the time was controlled by the Russian-backed separatists.”
Ms Bishop said the next step is to speak to other nations involved to decide on the type of action to be taken.
“We owe it to the victims of the downing of MH17 and their families, who are still grieving, to hold to account those responsible for bringing down this civilian aircraft,” said Ms Bishop.
The Australian Government announced in the May budget it would put $50m over four years towards the prosecution costs of bringing those responsible to justice.
Families blame Russia
The latest development comes after some of the families wrote an open letter to the Russian people which said that the FIFA World Cup in Russia next month will have a “different, dark meaning”.
The letter was signed by the relatives of nine victims, including three Australians.
Jon O’Brien, the father of 25-year-old Australian Jack O’Brien, was one of the instigators of the letter.
“Despite it being nearly four years since our lives were shattered, we struggle to comprehend what happened,” the letter said.
“We hold the Russian state and its leaders as ultimately responsible for the deaths of our family members. All the credible evidence points in that direction.”
The families said they had confidence in the thoroughness and impartiality of the work — despite the long wait.
The open source investigation team Bellingcat is due to release more of its findings on Friday in The Hague.
It had previously identified the involvement of the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade, based in Kursk.
It alleged the retired Russian colonel Nikolai Tkachyov was a “figure of interest” in the downing of MH17.
He is now chief inspector of Russia’s Central Military District.