May 26 (UPI) — Civilian British investigators say they have linked a high-ranking Russian military intelligence officer to the shootdown of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 four years ago.
In a report Friday, Britain-based Bellingcat said it “identified conclusively” that 50-year-old officer Oleg Ivannikov was in charge of military operations in eastern Ukraine when MH17 was shot down over separatist-controlled territory in 2014, killing all 298 people aboard. The flight was headed from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
Ivannikov was in charge of supervising the “procurement and transport of weapons” across the Russia Ukraine border at the time of the downing of MH17, Bellingcat said.
The findings mark the first time a high-ranking Russian military officer has been found directly or indirectly on Ukrainian territory at the time of the shootdown.
Bellingcat is a website that publishes the findings of civilian journalist investigations.
“The findings in this report provide new information on Russia’s use of [intelligence] operatives in special operations in neighboring countries,” Bellingcat said. “They also establish for the first time a direct link between a high-ranking Russian military officer on active service operating in Ukraine and the destruction of the passenger airliner.”
According to the Bellingcat report, Ivannikov was known by militants and separatists under his command in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk region as Andrey Ivanovich and his radio call sign “Orion.”
The Netherlands and Australia on Friday blamed Russia for downing the flight.
“The downing of flight MH17 caused unimaginable suffering,” Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok said. “Netherlands and Australia are now convinced that Russia is responsible for the deployment of the [missile] installation that was used to down MH17.”
The countries said they asked Russia for talks aimed at “finding a solution that would do justice” to the suffering the crash caused.
“We call on Russia to accept its responsibility and cooperate fully with the process to establish the truth and achieve justice for the victims of flight MH17 and their next of kin,” Blok said.
A day earlier, the Joint Investigative Team — an alliance of authorities from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine — said the missile system that shot MH17 was owned by Russia’s 53rd anti-aircraft military brigade.
Russia denied the accusation, and instead blamed Ukrainian forces.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the JIT’s report “nothing but an allegation” aimed at tarnishing Moscow’s reputation.
“No evidence has been presented except for a colorful video based on information fabricated by bloggers from the Bellingcat agency, who were earlier caught distorting facts to prove Russia’s alleged involvement in the MH17 crash,” the Russian ministry said in a statement.
“[Russia] has the right to ask questions about the true reason behind JIT’s decision to make its preliminary conclusion public,” it added.