Multiple sightings of missile launcher before MH17 shot down, court told

Four men on trial in absentia in the Netherlands over downing of flight with 298 onboard over Ukraine

Multiple witnesses saw an anti-aircraft missile launcher that had secretly crossed into eastern Ukraine from Russia in the hours before it shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a trial in the Netherlands has heard.

The Buk system crossed the border in darkness in the early hours of 17 July 2014. It was then loaded on to a trailer and taken to the rebel-held city of Donetsk, the court heard on Wednesday, before it headed east towards the town of Snizhne.

Along the way, residents, a journalist and a passing driver spotted the distinctive launcher. It was carrying four missiles. A Russian military crew accompanied the anti-aircraft weapon, along with separatist fighters from the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), it was said.

Four suspects are on trial for their alleged part in the downing of MH17. The Buk was parked in an arable field south of Snizhne. Later that day it shot down the passenger plane, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people onboard, the court was told. Russia has denied responsibility.

At the time, the pro-Moscow rebels were losing territory to a Ukrainian military advance and separatist forces were vulnerable to attack by Ukrainian fighter jets, which had inflicted heavy casualties. 

The court heard intercepted conversations involving the four accused discussing the Buk and their need for an air defence weapon. Three of the four are Russian. The most senior is Igor Girkin, a former FSB spy agency officer who in April 2014 led the armed takeover of the Ukrainian town of Slavyansk, later retreating to Donetsk.

The others are Sergei Dubinsky, head of the DNR’s military intelligence service, and his deputy, Oleg Pulatov. Both liaised closely with Russia’s GRU’s military intelligence agency, which supplied the rebels with weapons, the court was told. The fourth man, Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian, was a DNR field commander.

The rebels variously referred to Russia as “Moscow”, “you know who” and the “eastern neighbour”. They discussed how the Buk – or “the toy”, as one commander put it – would dramatically transform the DNR’s fortunes on the battlefield and prevent their tanks from being picked off.

“If I receive the Buk in the morning I will send it over to you,” Dubinsky said, according to a recording of a phone call from 16 July 2014 passed by Ukraine’s intelligence service to Dutch investigators and played in court. “If not, things will be totally fucked up.” Dubinsky also told Pulatov: “Our only hope is the Buk.”

After the Buk entered rebel territory, the pair talked extensively about its route and destination, the court was told. The convoy travelled alongside and separately from a consignment of three tanks belonging to the DNR’s Vostok battalion. By mid-morning on 17 July it had arrived at a crossroads in Donetsk.

The presiding judge, Hendrik Steenhuis, said several witnesses noticed the anti-aircraft weapon, which was being pulled by a white Volvo truck, previously taken by rebels from Donetsk. Videos played in court showed the Buk passing Soviet-era tower blocks under a bright cloudy sky and trundling along a main highway. It was also recorded on a dashboard camera.

All of the witnesses were anonymous, identified by a letter and number. Some had uploaded evidence and images to the Dutch-led joint investigation team (JIT), which carried out the criminal investigationand concluded that a Russian missile had shot down the Boeing plane. The court was told that two armed men had threatened one witness and made him change his testimony on Russian TV.

The trial has progressed through a series of preliminary hearings since opening in March 2020. Its huge case file follows a seven-year international investigation. It includes phone calls, cell tower data, satellite imagery and public source material gathered from Twitter and Facebook, as well as witness statements, Steenhuis said on Wednesday.

The four suspects were not in the courtroom near Schiphol airport and are being tried in their absence. They face life sentences if convicted of murdering the 298 people. Only Pulatov is being represented by defence lawyers, who have told the court he is innocent.

Earlier the trial heard how the Kremlin presented misdated and altered satellite imagery as “evidence” days after MH17 was blown up. Moscow has suggested Ukraine was to blame. Dutch experts said Russia had manipulated the pictures using Photoshop, with dates also changed.

The trial continues on Thursday.

By : Luke Harding – THE GUARDIAN

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