Moscow - The Dutch-led investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014 named its first suspects on Wednesday - among them three Russian nationals close to Moscow's intelligence services.
Investigators have long suspected a missile from Ukraine's battle zones was responsible for bringing down the jetliner, killing all 298 passengers and crew on the flight from Amsterdam to Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur.
But the charges against the four brings a tighter focus on the alleged decision-making and suspected Russian involvement in the July 2014 disaster. Moscow denies any role.
"We now have the information, the proof, that the Russian Federation is involved in this tragedy, in this crime, one way or the other," said Dutch chief prosecutor Fred Westerbeke.
The suspects are believed to be in Russia or separatist-held Ukraine, meaning they are out of the reach of Western law enforcement and unlikely to show up at trial scheduled for March.
But the announcement of the charges underscored the lingering tensions between Western Europe and Russia over the war in eastern Ukraine, which is now in its sixth year and has claimed some 13 000 lives.
"Their acts on and around July 2014 have led to the shooting of Flight MH17. Even though they have not pushed the button themselves, there is suspicion that they have closely cooperated" in obtaining and positioning the missile launcher that shot down the jet, Westerbeke told reporters at The Hague.
The suspects included Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, a former colonel in Russia's domestic intelligence service, FSB, who was a leader of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine at the time the Boeing 777 was downed.
Two other suspects have links to Russia's military intelligence unit, known as the GRU, which has taken a higher profile in suspected Russian operations in recent years. Western officials have tied the GRU to the nerve agent poisoning in Britain last year and the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee emails.
One suspect, Sergey Dubinskiy, was an employee of Russia's GRU military intelligence agency. Another, Oleg Pulatov, was a former GRU Special Forces soldier, prosecutors said.
The fourth suspect, Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, was described as having no military background but having led a separatist combat unit in eastern Ukraine.
The four suspects are charged with causing the crash of the passenger plane and murdering the 298 passengers and crew aboard. The victims included 196 Dutch citizens.
The downing of the jet - some analysts have speculated that separatists were aiming for a Ukrainian military aircraft - proved to be a turning point in the conflict in Ukraine, rallying Western public opinion against Russia.
"The possibility exists the suspects wanted to shoot a military airplane instead of a passenger flight," Westerbeke said. "Even if that was the original plan, we still hold them responsible for the downing MH17."
A statement from Russia's Foreign Ministry dismissed the charges against the Russian nationals as "absolutely unfounded" and an attempt to "discredit the Russian Federation." It pledged, however, that Russia would continue to work with investigators to "help determine the truth."
Before the Dutch announcement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia's position on the investigation was "very well known," but he declined to specify whether Russia would hand over any suspects for prosecution.
Still, it did not appear likely that Russia would cooperate. The Kremlin has denied any Russian involvement in the downing of the jet, and it has often criticised the Dutch-led investigation.
"I'm not giving any comments," one of the suspects, Girkin, told Russia's Interfax news agency. "I can only say that the militia didn't shoot the Boeing down."
Battles began in 2014 between Ukraine's forces and pro-Moscow separatists in the east of the country. Ukrainian officials and Western allies say fighters and supplies crossed the border from Russia to aid the pro-Moscow militias. Among the supplies that crossed the border, investigators have said, was the Buk missile that shot down the Malaysia Airlines jet.
The prosecutor said that the Dutch authorities would formally ask Russia to issue a summons to those suspects, including Girkin.
Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, and Ukraine, are also part of the investigation, known as the Joint Investigative Team.
Dubinskiy has no ties to the military or to the Malaysia Airlines jet, his representative told Interfax.
"He's not going to go to any court, he's not going to testify because there's nothing to testify about. He isn't going to the West, either," the representative said, according to Interfax.
Westerbeke said that Dutch authorities wouldn't send formal extradition requests, since both Russia and Ukraine bar the extradition of their citizens. He said the trial would start at 10 a.m. on March 9 whether or not the four suspects show up.
"We expressly appeal for the suspects to note down the time and date and report in to be present during their criminal trial, or to contact us beforehand," he said.
Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said he "welcomes" the conclusion of the international team of investigators.
He expressed hope that the suspects would be put on trial for the "brazen murder of innocent children, woman and men."
The Washington Post