(Bloomberg) -- President Vladimir Putin rejected accusations by the Netherlands and Australia that Russia was responsible for the 2014 crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, after investigators said they found proof the missile that downed the plane belonged to a Russia-based military unit.
“No, of course not,” Putin replied when asked if a Russian missile had shot down the aircraft, killing all 298 people aboard, most of them Dutch citizens. “There are different versions of this tragedy, but no one takes them into account,” Putin told the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum Friday.
International investigators said at a news conference in the Netherlands on Thursday that the Buk missile that brought down the plane over eastern Ukraine belonged to the 53rd anti-aircraft missile brigade of the Russian army based in Kursk, Russia.
Almost four years after the tragedy, which sparked Western sanctions on Russia for its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine, the accusations are fueling tensions in the wake of the nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian spy in England. That March attack, also blamed on the Kremlin, led to the expulsions of dozens of diplomats from Russia’s embassies in Europe and other Western capitals.
On the basis of the investigators’ conclusions, “the Netherlands and Australia are now convinced that Russia is responsible for the deployment of the Buk installation that was used to down MH17,” Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok said in a statement on Friday. “The government is now taking the next step by formally holding Russia accountable.”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who cut short a trip to India to return to The Hague to discuss the topic at a weekly cabinet meeting, said his country and Australia would pursue Russia over its violation of international law. “So my message to the Russians is that we expect them now to fully cooperate with the investigation,” he told reporters.
Russia has “no reason to fully trust” the Dutch-led MH17 inquiry because it wasn’t given full access to its work, Putin said.
Russia’s Defense Ministry on Friday denied supplying a Buk missile that took down MH17. The country is analyzing videos presented by Dutch investigators, the ministry said in an emailed statement.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Blok, his Dutch counterpart, discussed the investigation’s findings by phone, but Lavrov heard no facts confirming Russia’s responsibility, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow said. Russia has responded to all requests for legal aid from Dutch prosecutors, Lavrov said, adding Russia is ready to cooperate with the Netherlands if the investigation is transparent and fair.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that based on the Joint Investigation Team’s findings “the only conclusion we can reasonably now draw is that Russia was directly involved in the downing,” according to a statement. “We have requested negotiations to open dialogue around the circumstances leading to the tragic loss of innocent lives.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on his Facebook page that he has instructed the country’s foreign ministry to work out proposals “immediately to join the process” started by the Netherlands and Australia.
Dutch King Willem-Alexander, on a state visit to Luxembourg, repeated that the MH17 crash remains an “open wound” in Dutch society, according to local media reports.
In September 2016, Dutch investigators concluded that the flight en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was brought down by a Buk missile system fired from rebel-held territory in Ukraine.
In July of last year, the five countries working on the investigation -- Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine -- picked the Netherlands as the country where suspects will be prosecuted. So far, no suspect has been identified.
The step by the Dutch and Australian governments is “separate from the criminal investigation and any prosecution and trial of the perpetrators of the downing of flight MH17,” according to Blok’s statement.
The investigation is in its “final phase” and it won’t take many more years to find missing information, Dutch prosecutor and JIT coordinator Fred Westerbeke said on Thursday.
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