Image: Debris from a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 that crashed on Thursday lies on the ground near the village of Rozsypne in the Donetsk region July 18, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev/File Photo
By Toby Sterling
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – An international team of prosecutors investigating the downing of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine in 2014 will report findings on Wednesday but are unlikely to bring charges against anyone, given legal and political obstacles.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was hit by a surface-to-air missile while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and all 298 people aboard, most of them Dutch citizens, were killed.
At the time of the disaster, Ukrainian government forces were engaged in heavy fighting with pro-Russian separatists. The Boeing 777 broke apart in midair, flinging wreckage over several kilometres (miles) of fields in rebel-held territory.
The incident played a significant part in a decision by the European Union and United States to impose sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine conflict, and East-West tensions escalated to levels not seen since the Cold War ended in 1990.
The team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine planned a news conference at 1100 GMT to deliver conclusions “with regard to the weapon that was used to bring down Flight MH17 and the precise location from which this weapon was launched”, a group statement said.
Ukrainian and Western officials, citing intelligence intercepts, have blamed pro-Russian rebels for the incident. Russia has always denied direct involvement in the Ukraine conflict and rejects responsibility for the destruction of MH17.
A civilian investigation into the cause of the July 17, 2014 incident conducted by the Dutch Safety Board concluded last year that the airliner had been downed by a Russian-made Buk missile launched from eastern Ukraine.
But the board was not tasked with assigning blame, and prosecutors must conduct their own investigation if evidence assembled is ever to be used in court.
Dutch prosecutor Fred Westerbeke, head of the investigative team, said earlier it had a “long list of persons of interest” in the case and had been analysing airplane debris and ballistics found at the scene.
Prosecutors could indicate on Tuesday what charges they are considering bringing – for instance criminal negligence – but unresolved legal questions may make this unlikely to happen.
In 2015 the Netherlands proposed a United Nations-backed tribunal to prosecute the case, but Russia cast a veto in the U.N. Security Council to block the motion.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador said then that it was premature to set up an international tribunal, and that for Western supporters of the motion “political purposes were more important … than practical objectives”.
A visit by Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders to Moscow to address the situation ended without result.
Prosecutors have sought legal assistance from Moscow since October 2014, and visited in person for a week in July. “Russian authorities have offered information in the past, but have not answered all questions,” they said in a statement at the time.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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