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Russia Is Legally Responsible For Downing Of MH17, Netherlands And Australia Say

Updated at 8 a.m. ET Friday

The Netherlands and Australia are formally blaming Russia's government for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014, one day after international investigators said the missile that struck the jet originated from the Russian military.

The passenger jet crashed in July 2014 in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.

Russia has repeatedly denied playing a part in the attack. Russia's defense ministry said Friday that the Buk missile "more than likely belongs to the Ukrainian armed forces."

The Dutch government said in a statement Friday that it may send the case to an international court if talks it has proposed with Russia to "do justice to the tremendous suffering and damage caused" by the flight's downing were unsuccessful.

The Netherlands said the process of holding the Russian government legally responsible is separate from a criminal investigation into the specific suspects who shot the missile.

In 2016, investigators with the Joint Investigation Team — including representatives from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine — said a Russian Buk missile was fired from a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Investigators said the missile launcher was brought over the border from Russia and then returned to Russia afterward.

Wilbert Paulissen of the Dutch National Police said at a news conference in the Netherlands on Thursday that investigators "scrutinized images" and established a "type of fingerprint" of where the missile came from.

The missile "originated" from Russia's 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade from the city of Kursk in western Russia, Paulissen said — a "part of the Russian armed forces."

This runs counter to Russia's claim that no Russian military forces or equipment were used across the border in Ukraine.

Russia's foreign ministry responded later on Thursday, calling the investigators' conclusions "regrettable" and "aimed at discrediting our country." It said a video presented at the news conference was based on "fabricated" data. Russia said Moscow hosted Dutch investigators, handed over Buk missile design data and provided "raw data from radar surveillance of the airspace at the time of the tragedy," which the foreign ministry said "cannot be tampered with or altered."

The Russian defense ministry said Friday that a serial number shown on investigators' images of the Buk missile "clearly shows" it was manufactured in 1986, and it could not have been used past 2011 because the missiles have a 25-year limit to their operation after which they are decommissioned.

Head prosecutor Fred Westerbeke speaks next to a part of the Buk rocket that was fired on Flight MH17 during the news conference of the Joint Investigation Team in Bunnik, Netherlands, on Thursday.
Robin Van Lonkhuijsen / AFP/Getty Images
Head prosecutor Fred Westerbeke speaks next to a part of the Buk rocket that was fired on Flight MH17 during the news conference of the Joint Investigation Team in Bunnik, Netherlands, on Thursday.

Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014 and has supported pro-Russian separatists in an ongoing war in the country's contested eastern territories.

The investigators' findings support earlier conclusions from the U.K. "citizen investigative journalist" group Bellingcat, which said more than two years ago that photographs from the day the plane was shot down linked the Buk missile to Russia's 53rd brigade in Kursk, as NPR's Corey Flintoff wrote at the time.

Paulissen said Thursday that the brigade consisted of three battalions with "a few hundred people at least" working on the staff in 2014.

In their 2016 announcement, the investigative team said they identified more than 100 people who could be linked to the missile's firing. They now say they've narrowed their list to several dozen.

Chief prosecutor Fred Westerbeke called on members of the public to assist with providing more information about the incident.

The announcement came two days after family members of some of those killed on the flight published an open letter in the Russian news site Novaya Gazeta, saying they "do not blame the Russian people for what happened," but that "the Russian state and its leaders [are] ultimately responsible for the deaths of our family members. All the credible evidence points in that direction."

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