UK group says it has identified Russians behind MH17 crash

Students holding a candlelight vigil for victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 at a university in Yangzhou on July 19, 2014.
Students holding a candlelight vigil for victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 at a university in Yangzhou on July 19, 2014.PHOTO: REUTERS

THE HAGUE • Dutch prosecutors have said they would "seriously study" claims by citizen journalists to have identified Russian soldiers implicated in the crash of Flight MH17, shot down over eastern Ukraine in July 2014.

The claims were made by a British-based group of "citizen investigative journalists" called Bellingcat, which specialises in trawling through data on social media and other open sources.

"We received the report just after Christmas," Mr Wim de Bruin, a spokesman for the Dutch prosecutor's office, said on Sunday. "We will seriously study it and determine whether it can be used for the criminal inquiry."

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was downed over war-torn eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014 by a BUK surface-to-air missile, killing all 298 on board, air crash investigators said last October.

Western nations and Ukraine say the missile was fired from pro-Russian separatist-held territory, but Moscow denies the claim, pointing the finger instead at the Ukrainian military.

In 2014, Bellingcat reported that a BUK mobile launcher, spotted on July 17 in an area controlled by pro-Russian rebels, came from a military convoy from Russia's 53rd anti-aircraft brigade - a unit based in Kursk but sent on manoeuvres near the Ukrainian border.

The launcher was later filmed again, but at least one of its missiles was missing.

In an interview with the Dutch TV channel NOS on Sunday, Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins said his organisation had now identified 20 soldiers in this brigade.

This is "probably" the group that either knows who fired or has that individual among its number, Mr Higgins said.

The sources for this include photos posted on the Internet and army data about personnel deployment that was available online, NOS said.

It added that a redacted version of the report should be published "shortly". Mr De Bruin said Dutch prosecutors had "already been in contact" with Bellingcat in the past.

Last October, a Dutch-led team of international investigators concluded in a final report that the Malaysia Airlines flight was shot down by a Russian-made BUK missile fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine.

The findings were disputed by the missile maker, Russian company Almaz-Antey, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who called the report "biased".

Russia had previously suggested that Ukrainian forces may have been responsible, but has so far vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have created a criminal tribunal to pursue the perpetrators.

This year, Ukraine is expected to use its seat on the council to push for accountability.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2016, with the headline 'UK group says it has identified Russians behind MH17 crash'. Print Edition | Subscribe