NIEUWEGEIN, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch-led criminal investigators said Wednesday they have solid evidence that a Malaysian jet was shot down in 2014 by a Buk missile that was moved into eastern Ukraine from Russia.
Wilbert Paulissen, head of the Central Crime Investigation department of the Dutch National Police, said communications intercepts showed that pro-Moscow rebels had called for deployment of the mobile surface-to-air weapon and reported its arrival on July 17, 2014, in rebel-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine.
The deadly surface-to-air weapon that blasted Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 out of the sky that same day at 33,000 feet, killing all 298 people aboard, was launched from farmland in the rebel-held area of Pervomaiskiy, 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne, the investigation found.
Witnesses there reported an explosion and a whistling sound and a patch of field was set on fire.
From that and other evidence collected by the Joint Investigation Team, “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,” Paulissen told a news conference Wednesday in the Dutch town of Nieuwegein.
The conclusions of the investigative unit — which includes police and prosecutors from the Netherlands, Ukraine, Belgium, Australia and Malaysia — were consistent with previous reporting by The Associated Press, which established soon after MH17’s destruction that a tracked Buk M-1 launcher with four SA-11 surface-to-air missiles had been sighted the same day in the rebel-controlled town of Snizhne near Pervomaiskiy.
A separate investigation by Dutch safety officials last year concluded that the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight was downed by a Buk missile fired from territory in Ukraine held by pro-Russian rebels.
Dutch police spokesman Thomas Aling said the joint investigation findings differ in that they are designed to be solid enough to be used as evidence in a criminal trial. Where and when a trial might take place is still to be determined, Aling said.
“The next question, of course, is who was responsible for this,” Dutch chief prosecutor Fred Westerbeke said. He said investigators have identified 100 people they want to speak to who are believed to have been involved in the transport of the Buk launcher or its use.
Moscow officials have consistently denied allegations that pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine were responsible for downing the passenger plane. The Russian Foreign Ministry reacted quickly to the release of the international investigation’s findings, calling the probe “biased and politically motivated.”
The Dutch-led investigation ignored evidence offered by Russia and allowed Ukraine to manipulate the evidence and shape anti-Russian conclusions, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov also denied that Russian air defense missile systems ever have been sent to Ukraine.
“Russian missile defense systems, including Buk, have never crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border,” Konashenkov said.
Earlier this week, the Russian military said that newly found data from radar in southern Russia showed that the missile that downed the Malaysia Airlines jet did not originate in rebel-controlled territory. It said it would turn that data over to investigators.
The Russian maker of the Buk air defense missile system also contested the conclusions of the Dutch-led investigation.
Mikhail Malyshevsky, an adviser to the director of the state-controlled Almaz-Antei consortium, said Wednesday that an analysis of the plane’s shrapnel-ridden fragments show that it couldn’t have been downed by a missile launched from a rebel-controlled area in eastern Ukraine.
Malyshevsky said the missile likely came from an area that Russian officials have previously described as Ukraine-controlled.
Ukrainian officials countered that the Dutch-led team’s findings prove Russia’s complicity in the tragedy.
“It is proved that the Buk had come into our territory from Russian territory,” Ukrainian 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.”
Police and judicial officials from five countries on the Joint Investigation Team have been working together to gather the best possible evidence for use in prosecution of the perpetrators.
They have faced extraordinary challenges. The crime scene in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk oblast region where the plane was brought down on July 17, 2014, was located in an active war zone. During the days following the downing, pro-Kremlin militants limited access to the crash site.
Eleven containers crammed with debris from the jetliner were ultimately brought to the Netherlands. A research team took soil samples in eastern Ukraine and established the location of cellphone towers and the layout of the local telephone network to verify intercepted phone calls from the militants.
Forensic samples were taken from passengers’ and crew members’ bodies and luggage, and satellite data and communications intercepts were scrutinized. The team also appealed for information from witnesses who may have seen the missile launch.
About two-thirds of the passengers aboard MH17 were Dutch nationals; the crew members were Malaysians. Malaysia proposed setting up an international tribunal to try those responsible for the plane’s destruction, but Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution in favor of a tribunal.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby hailed the investigators’ report as “another step toward bringing to justice those responsible for this outrageous attack.”
Associated Press Writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this story.