Investigators looking into the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 have launched a new appeal for witnesses who knew about high-level Russian involvement with Ukrainian rebels linked to the attack.
The Joint Investigation Team (JIT) made the appeal as it released phone taps suggesting leaders of the armed group Donetsk People’s Republic were in contact with senior Russian officials about military support.
The JIT includes representatives from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, Ukraine and the Netherlands.
It has made several breakthroughs in the long-running investigation of the July 17, 2014 downing of MH17 with 298 people on board.
These include establishing that the BUK-TELAR missile launch system came from Russia’s 53rd Anti-Missile Brigade in the Russian city of Kursk.
Three Russians and a Ukrainian have also been charged in absentia with the murders of the passengers and crew and a trial is due to begin on March 9, 2020, in The Hague.
The phone taps showed that rebel leaders Alexander Borodai, and Igor Girkin communicated with Sergey Aksyonov, the Russian-appointed leader in Crimea, and Vladislav Surkov, a high ranking official of the Russian government and senior aide to President Vladimir Putin.
“Recent analysis of witness statements and other information revealed that Russian influence on the DPR went beyond military support and that the ties between Russian officials and DPR-leaders appear closer,’’ the JIT said.
The JIT said the telephone numbers used were from the same series and appear to be provided by the Russian security service FSB.
The numbers were used daily to discuss administrative, financial and military matters in the DPR. The JIT wants to know by whom these telephone numbers were used.
In one call, a DPR member tells a local commander “men are coming with a mandate from Shoygu”, a reference the JIT links to Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu.
The DPR-member says these men ‘will kick the local warlords out of the units’, and ‘people from Moscow’ will take over the command.
“The indications of close ties between Russian government officials and leaders of the DPR raise questions about their possible involvement in the deployment of the BUK-TELAR, which brought down flight MH17 on 17 July 2014,’’ investigators said.
“The JIT is looking for witnesses who can share information about those who commanded the deployment of this BUK-TELAR.”
Russia has repeatedly denied any involvement in the tragedy and the Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday questioned the authenticity of the phone intercepts.