A series of phone intercepts released by a team investigating the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine show ties between Moscow and the pro-Russian rebels accused of shooting down the aircraft were “much closer” than originally believed, investigators said.
The Dutch-lead Joint Investigation Team (JIT) said calls between officials in Moscow and pro-Russian rebel leaders in eastern Ukraine, who are facing trial over the incident, intensified before the crash in July of 2014, raising questions over Russia’s involvement in providing the missile used to down the plane.
“There was almost daily telephone contact between the leadership of the DPR and their contacts in the Russian Federation,” JIT said in a statement on Thursday, using the acronym of the Donetsk People’s Republic rebels.
The calls mostly took place over secure phones provided by Russian security forces, it said.
“The indications for close ties between leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and Russian government officials raise questions about their possible involvement in the deployment of the [missile], which brought down flight MH17 on 17 July 2014,” JIT said.
All 298 people on board died when MH17 was shot out of the sky over the territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Andy Kraag, the head of Dutch police’s Criminal Investigations Division, said in a video statement the intercepts show the “ties between Russian officials and DPR leaders appear to have been much closer” than originally believed.
The rebels and the Russian government denied involvement in the plane’s destruction.
Investigators had previously found the missile that hit the aircraft originated from Russia’s Kursk military base, not far from the Ukrainian border.
In June, JIT charged three Russians and a Ukrainian with the murders. The charged men, former Russian intelligence agent Igor Girkin, also known by his pseudonym “Strelkov”, Sergei Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov, and Leonid Kharchenko were all leading DPR members.
The intercepts showed two of the leaders of the DPR charged with shooting down the passenger jet had been in repeated contact with Vladislav Surkov, a senior aide of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Sergey Aksyonov, a Russian-appointed leader in Russian-annexed Crimea.
In a conversation on July 3, 2014, prosecutors said Surkov indicated reinforcements would be coming from Russia.
“On Saturday, they are already departing for the south to be combat ready,” he said.
JIT published the telephone call intercepts on its website and appealed for witnesses to come forward as it ramped up for the trial. The team also released a series of phone numbers, asking witnesses to help identify the callers.
Moscow on Thursday said it could not verify the authenticity of the intercepts.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a news briefing in Moscow the intercepts followed a wave of “fake news” on the subject and should be regarded with scepticism.
Russia has previously denied Western accusations that it sent ground troops, weapons, and funding to the rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The four individuals who have been charged in the case go on trial in absentia in a Dutch court on March 9, 2020.