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 and put out a new call for more witnesses.
“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 announcement was the latest development in an already meticulously documented tragedy of the Ukraine war.
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.
The long-haul jetliner, a Boeing 777-200ER, disintegrated in the sky, scattering debris and bodies over a large area of sunflower fields and three villages in rural eastern Ukraine.
The United States and other Western governments have already blamed Russia for downing the airliner. At the time, Russian-backed separatists had been targeting Ukrainian spotter planes flying into the war zone from the west at altitudes only several thousand feet lower than that of the commercial air traffic on international routes.
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.
Evidence from bystanders’ cellphone videos quickly piled up, showing the missile launcher had come from Russia and was quickly spirited back across the border in a hasty effort at a cover-up. The Russian government has denied any involvement.
A Dutch aviation safety investigation concluded in 2015 that a missile had shot down the plane. The following year, the Joint Investigation Team, formed with prosecutors from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine, traced the missile launcher’s route from Russia to Ukraine and back.
During shaky truces negotiated to retrieve the bodies, Dutch and Australian emergency workers also found evidence of the attack. They removed missile fragments and plane debris that were used to identify the weapon. The missile, an Sa-11, or Buk surface-to-air missile, was made in Moscow in 1986, prosecutors said.
It was always improbable, analysts said, that anyone other than a senior Russian military commander, if not President Vladimir Putin, could have ordered the bulky anti-aircraft system, mounted on a tracked vehicle, deployed across an international border.
The missile belonged to an active-duty unit in the Russian military, the 53rd Anti-aircraft Brigade based in the city of Kursk, the Dutch investigators said. Journalists and independent investigators have since identified several potential suspects by name, linking their voices with those of the rebel commanders heard on the intercepted phone calls released by Ukrainian authorities.
Bellingcat, a group using-open source materials for investigations, identified one Russian officer as Oleg V. Ivannikov, and said he operated under the pseudonym Andrei I. Laptev and the code name Orion, and another as Nikolai F. Tkachev, a retired three-star general who had used the code name Delfin during the Ukraine war.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in arming separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine or in shooting down the Malaysia Airlines flight. Any admission of a role in downing the airliner would also concede it was arming separatists in a war that has killed about 13,000 people.
In early 2014, mass protests in Ukraine forced out a pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, opening the door to leaders who wanted to pull away from Moscow and forge closer ties to the West.
That prompted an immediate, drastic change in Russia’s treatment of its neighbor. Within days of Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia sent troops into Crimea, a part of Ukraine, and annexed it. Weeks later, the separatist war in eastern Ukraine began.