By Andrew E. Kramer
New York Times News Service
MOSCOW — International prosecutors Wednesday said that four men, including three with close ties to the Russian military and intelligence, would face murder charges in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine five years ago, killing 298 people.
Fred Westerbeke, the chief prosecutor of the Netherlands, said that the trial would begin in the Netherlands on March 9. The accused are unlikely to be present, however, since three are in Russia and the fourth is believed to be in the breakaway region in Ukraine.
But investigators said they would seek international arrest warrants for the suspects.
“This is the start of the Dutch criminal proceedings,” Westerbeke said.
Three of the suspects are Russian, the investigators said at a news conference in Nieuwegein, Netherlands: Igor Girkin, a former colonel in the FSB, the Russian domestic security agency; and Sergey Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, who have worked for the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency.
The fourth man, Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukranian, led a separatist combat unit under Dubinsky.
The charges, based on a lengthy investigation conducted by officials of five countries affected by the disaster — the Netherlands, Malaysia, Ukraine, Belgium and Australia — expands on earlier reports about the Russian hand in the separatist faction in eastern Ukraine that has been fighting a civil war against government forces.
The missile that struck Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, caused the worst single loss of life for civilians during a war that has continued for more than five years. The 283 passengers and 15 crew members on the flight, which was en route to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from Amsterdam, came from about a dozen countries; 193 of the passengers were Dutch.
Russia’s involvement quickly became evident. Several hours before the disaster, The Associated Press reported that its journalists had spotted a sophisticated anti-aircraft system in a rebel convoy in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border.
Almost immediately after the strike, Ukrainian authorities released intercepted cellphone calls between rebel commanders about the missile attack, which they initially discussed as a strike against a Ukrainian military airplane.