(CNSNews.com) – The State Department Thursday called on Russia to “cease its lies” about the shooting down of a civilian aircraft over Ukraine in 2014 and account for its role in the atrocity, after investigators concluded that the plane was brought down by a Russian surface-to-air missile that originated from a Russian military unit.
Moscow’s foreign ministry immediately rejected the findings, accusing the investigators of ignoring data provided by Russia, and dismissing their conclusion as “nothing but an allegation aimed at tarnishing our country’s image on the international stage.”
All 298 passengers and crew onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, were killed when the aircraft crashed in eastern Ukraine in July 2014.
A Joint Investigation Team (JIT), comprising representatives from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine, found in 2016 that the plane was brought down by a Russian BUK missile fired from a part of eastern Ukraine under the control – then, and to this day – of pro-Russian separatists.
It said the missile launcher (or TELAR, “transporter erector launcher and radar”) had been taken across the border into Ukraine from Russia, and then returned after the incident. Russia has consistently denied that.
On Thursday, the JIT at a press conference in the Netherlands announced the result of its further “extensive comparative research”: The BUK launcher used to shoot down flight MH17, it said, “originated” from Russia’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, based in the nearby Russian city of Kursk.
Wilbert Paulissen, head of the Dutch police national investigation service, appealed to anyone with any knowledge of the deployment of the launcher to come forward.
“Who formed part of the crew? With which instruction did they set out? Who was responsible for the operational deployment of this BUK-TELAR on 17 July 2014?” he said. “We are convinced that many people have this information.”
“We are getting close,” Paulissen said. “This is the time to come forward.”
The Netherlands, which accounted for the largest number of victims, 193 lives lost, heads up the JIT.
In the days after the disaster, U.S. intelligence assessed that flight MH17 had been shot down by pro-Russian separatists, possibly acting with Russian “technical assistance,” while Moscow accused the Ukraine government of responsibility.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Thursday the U.S. has “complete confidence” in the JIT findings.
“Today’s announcement confirms and adds detail to what we have said from the earliest days of this tragedy: MH17 was shot down by a Russian-made BUK surface-to-air missile fired from territory in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia and Russia-led forces,” she said.
Nauert recalled that a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted unanimously four days after the crash demanded that those found to be responsible “be held to account and that all states cooperate fully with efforts to establish accountability.”
The U.S. called on Russia in particular to adhere to that, she said.
“It is time for Russia to cease its lies and account for its role in the shoot down.”
‘A war they had nothing to do with’
Responding to the JIT claims, the Russian defense ministry said in a statement Thursday that no Russian army air defense missiles systems “ever crossed the Russia-Ukraine border” as alleged.
It repeated Russia’s claims all along that Ukrainian forces were responsible.
“Within the framework of interaction with the Dutch law-enforcement bodies, the Russian side presented overwhelming evidence confirmed by full-scale tests and clearly pointing to the complicity of precisely Ukrainian crews of BUK missile systems in destroying the Boeing airliner from the Netherlands over Ukraine,” it said.
This week a small group of relatives of flight MH17 victims published an “open letter to the Russian people” in Russia’s Novaya Gazeta expressing the pain of their loss.
“The people we love were killed in a war, a war in which they were not combatants, a war they had nothing to do with.”
The writers said they do not hold the Russian people responsible.
“We hold the Russian state and its leaders as ultimately responsible for the deaths of our family members,” they said. “All the credible evidence points in that direction.”
In July 2015, Russia used its Security Council veto to kill a resolution that would have created a tribunal to prosecute and punish those found responsible for the flight MH17 shooting down. China, Venezuela and Angola abstained
The Russian measure drew sharp criticism from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who was in the chamber at the time. Bishop told the Russian ambassador that those who shot down the aircraft “may believe that they can now hide behind the Russian Federation veto” but “will not be allowed to evade justice.”
Thirty-eight Australian citizens or residents were among the dead.
Last year the Dutch government announced that the JIT member countries would prosecute any suspects who are identified, in the Netherlands, under Dutch law.
Nauert said Thursday the U.S. remains “confident in the ability of the Dutch criminal justice system to prosecute those responsible in a manner that is fair and just.”