efe-epaNieuwegein, Netherlands

Moscow has Wednesday denied involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 as three Russians and one Ukrainian face murder charges over the tragedy.

All 298 passengers and crew aboard the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were killed when it was hit by a Buk surface to air missile as the craft flew above a conflict zone in eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

Three Russian nationals and one Ukrainian allegedly involved in the incident over a rebel-held region near Donetsk have been charged with murder, with a trial due to take place in the Netherlands, a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) said.

The suspects were named as Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Karchenko, by Dutch National Police chief Wilbert Paulissen at a press conference in Nieuwegein.

"We have decided to prosecute four suspects for downing flight MH17," lead JIT investigator Fred Westerbeke said.

"This is the start of the Dutch criminal proceedings."

Girkin was the so-called Donetsk People Republic's defense minister when flight MH17 was downed, Dubinsky was his deputy and a former member of Russia's GRU intelligence service, Pulatov was head of the DPR's intel service and Karchenko, who has no military background on record, commanded a unit in Donetsk.

The four are now the subject of an international arrest warrant.

The first three are of Russian nationality and probably reside in Russia, the JIT said, while Karchenko is of Ukrainian nationality and is presumed to live in eastern Ukraine, where the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic are still at war with the central Ukrainian government.

Russia’s Defense Ministry has rejected all the accusations and described them as “completely unfounded.”

It said in an online statement that none of its air defense missile systems had ever crossed the border between Russia and Ukraine.

“You know our attitude towards this investigation. Russia had no opportunity to take part in it even though it showed initiative from the very first days of this tragedy,” government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday.

According to open-source investigative website Bellingcat, which has collaborated closely with the investigation, Dubinsky received the Buk missile from Russia, Pulatov escorted it and Karchenko assured its passage back across the border into Russia.

The JIT, which brings together experts from Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine, has previously presented evidence that claims the Buk missile used in the downing of MH17 belonged to the Russian military and had been brought across the border into the insurgent-held areas of east Ukraine.

It was fired from an agricultural area not far from the town of Pervomaiskiy before being returned to the Russian Federation.

The investigation into the downing of the passenger plane has been hampered by the fact the team had not been granted sufficient access to the key areas of interest, many of which remain behind the frontlines of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, the JIT said.

It added that the trial against the four men will begin on Mar. 9, 2020 at the Justice Complex Schipol.

The JIT appealed to the suspects to attend court on that date but said the trial will take place in their absence if they do not.

Eastern Ukraine descended into violence in 2014 when pro-Russian insurgents grabbed power as the country reeled from a pro-European revolution that ousted the former Russophile president, Viktor Yanukovych.

The unrest, which according to the United Nations has claimed more than 10,000 lives, came after Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Western powers have accused Russia of trying to destabilize the region. EFE-EPA

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