Multiple witnesses saw a anti-aircraft missile launchers which had secretly crossed eastern Ukraine from Russia in the hours before landing the Malaysia Airlines Malaysia flight MH17, heard a trial in the Netherlands.
The Buk system crossed the border in darkness in the early hours of July 17, 2014. It was then loaded onto a trailer and taken to the rebel-held city of Donetsk, court heard Wednesday, before heading east. towards the town of Snizhne.
Along the way, residents, a reporter and a passing driver spotted the distinctive launcher. It carried 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 killing of MH17. The Buk was parked in a arable field south of Snizhne. Later that day he shot down the passenger plane, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board, the court was told. Russia has denied responsibility.
At the time, pro-Moscow rebels were losing territory to a Ukrainian military advance, and separatist forces were vulnerable to attacks by Ukrainian fighters, which had inflicted heavy casualties.
The court overheard intercepted conversations involving the four accused discussing the Buk and their need for an air defense weapon. Three of the four are Russian. The eldest is Igor girkin, a former FSB spy agency officer who led the armed conquest of the Ukrainian city of Slavyansk, then retreating to Donetsk.
The others are Sergei Dubinsky, chief of the military intelligence service of the DNR, and his deputy, Oleg Pulatov. Both were in close contact with the Russian military intelligence agency GRU, which supplied weapons to the rebels, the court was told. The fourth man, Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian, was a DNR field commander.
The rebels referred to Russia in various ways as “Moscow”, “you know who” and “eastern neighbor”. 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 eliminated.
“If I get the Buk in the morning, I’ll send it to you,” Dubinsky said, according to a recording of a July 16, 2014 phone call transmitted by Ukrainian intelligence to Dutch investigators and played in court. “Otherwise, things will be totally messed up.” Dubinsky also told Pulatov: “Our only hope is the Buk.”
After the Buk entered rebel territory, the couple spoke extensively about its route and destination, the court was told. The convoy traveled alongside and separately from a batch of three tanks belonging to the DNR’s Vostok battalion. By mid-morning on July 17 he had come to a crossroads in Donetsk.
The president of the court, Hendrik Steenhuis, said that several witnesses noticed the anti-aircraft weapon, which was being towed by a white Volvo truck, previously taken by the Donetsk rebels. Videos played in court showed the Buk passing Soviet-era skyscrapers under a bright, cloudy sky and proceeding along a major highway. It was also recorded by a dashboard camera.
All witnesses were anonymous, identified by a letter and a number. Some had uploaded evidence and images for the Netherlands-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT), which carried out the criminal investigation and concluded that a Russian missile had shot down the Boeing plane. The court was told that two gunmen had threatened a witness and had him change his testimony on Russian TV.
The trial has progressed through a series of preliminary hearings since opening in March 2020. Its huge file follows a seven-year international investigation. It includes phone calls, repeater data, satellite imagery and publicly sourced material collected by Twitter and Facebook, as well as statements from witnesses, Steenhuis said Wednesday.
The four suspects were not in the courtroom near Schiphol airport and were tried in their absence. They face life imprisonment if convicted of the murder of 298 people. Only Pulatov is represented by defense attorneys, who have declared to the court that he is innocent.
Earlier the trial heard that the Kremlin had presented erroneous and altered satellite imagery as “evidence” days after the MH17 explosion. Moscow suggested that Ukraine was to blame. Dutch experts said that Russia manipulated the images using Photoshop, even changing the dates.
The trial continues on Thursday.