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Russia’s army unit that shot down a Malaysia Airways flight was in Ukraine : NPR


An condominium constructing in Izium, Ukraine, that was broken by Russian forces. Ukraine recaptured Izium in September 2022.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Claire Harbage/NPR


An condominium constructing in Izium, Ukraine, that was broken by Russian forces. Ukraine recaptured Izium in September 2022.

Claire Harbage/NPR

KHARKIV, Ukraine — On the previous sweet firm warehouse on Partisan Road in Izium, Ukraine, indicators of the Russian occupation had been all over the place. An artillery spherical sat close to one of many partitions. Throughout, the stays of homes lay in rubble, with caved-in partitions and no roofs.

Native resident Oleksiy Zadniprovskiy greeted us there, together with a chained-up guard canine. After the Russian troops left, he and his workforce of humanitarian employees moved in to assist the lately liberated space get well.

Zadniprovskiy launched us to Ruslan, a volunteer who declined to offer his final title as a result of he feared hazard if the Russians return. Even now, the constructing is lower than 100 kilometers from Bakhmut, the flashpoint for ongoing combating in japanese Ukraine.

Ruslan advised us what we might come there to be taught: that he heard and noticed anti-aircraft missiles being fired from the neighborhood of the advanced whereas the realm was underneath Russian occupation.

The previous warehouse, adorned with banners of Western beers like Budweiser and Corona Further, had been the momentary headquarters of a Russian anti-aircraft unit. Prosecutors within the Kharkiv area of Ukraine confirmed that. They confirmed us a doc confiscated after the Russian retreat that named the unit’s commander, together with his cellphone quantity and name signal — “Вoлда́й,” — together with the tackle for his or her headquarters.

The sources and documentation additionally confirmed it wasn’t simply any anti-aircraft unit.

It was the 53rd Anti-Plane Missile Brigade, among the many most infamous — and wished — models within the Russian army.

The 53rd is greatest identified for its function in capturing down Malaysia Airways Flight MH17 in 2014 because it flew over Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 passengers and crew died.

Individuals stroll amid the particles on the crash web site of the Flight MH17 passenger airplane close to the village of Grabovo, Ukraine, on July 17, 2014.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP


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Dmitry Lovetsky/AP


Individuals stroll amid the particles on the crash web site of the Flight MH17 passenger airplane close to the village of Grabovo, Ukraine, on July 17, 2014.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP

“You’ll be able to regard the downing of Flight MH17 [as the] Dutch 9/11,” mentioned Brechtje van de Moosdijk, a spokesperson for the Joint Investigation Group exploring the civilian airline assault. “When it occurred, it was a scorching summer season’s day, July 17, 2014. All people was comfortable and on holidays or mendacity within the backyard or on the swimming pool. After which this airplane was downed.”

And the 53rd has been a global pariah ever since, at the very least as a lot as conflict crimes investigators are involved. The truth that the unit is working in Ukraine nonetheless in the present day? It is just like the Russian president taunting the remainder of the world.

“This unit, after it shot down Malaysia Airways Flight 17… didn’t face any retribution. They didn’t face any justice for the crimes they dedicated,” mentioned George Barros, a Russia analyst on the Institute for the Research of Conflict. “And sadly, that is very a lot systematic in the way in which that the Russian Federation has been in a position to violate worldwide regulation.”

On the path of the 53rd Brigade

Ukrainian army and intelligence sources advised NPR that the 53rd Brigade was energetic over a lot of 2022 within the Kharkiv area, an space within the northeast of Ukraine close to the Russian border.

However there was little concrete proof of the unit’s particular location. The 53rd Brigade focuses on anti-aircraft missile methods. In contrast to infantry or mechanized models, they don’t combat on the entrance traces, the place open-source images of captured prisoners of conflict can be utilized to supply details about a unit’s actions and whereabouts.

Indicators of destruction all through Izium may be seen after its liberation.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Claire Harbage/NPR


Indicators of destruction all through Izium may be seen after its liberation.

Claire Harbage/NPR

“Militaries undertake important efforts to attempt to conceal their vital key battlefield belongings,” defined Barros. “The 53rd is definitely a type of as a result of it is designed to guard the front-line models from air assaults.”

Ukraine retook management of the Kharkiv area in September of final 12 months. Throughout that interval of combating, Ukrainian forces retrieved some paperwork Russian forces left behind at an deserted headquarters within the Kharkiv area.

One of many paperwork listed the army models that Russian forces had within the Izium space. On the seventeenth line, there was details about the 53rd that we had been in search of.

“I can affirm that we’ve data that for a while they had been settled within the Izium district, within the Kharkiv area,” Oleksandr Philchakov, the lead prosecutor for the Kharkiv area, advised NPR. Philchakov was monitoring numerous Russian models as a part of his workplace’s efforts to prosecute alleged conflict crimes.

Ukrainian investigators exhume our bodies from a mass grave web site in Izium in September. Investigators had been hoping to seek out and doc attainable proof of conflict crimes, and likewise to have the ability to determine these buried right here with no title.

Claire Harbage/NPR


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Claire Harbage/NPR


Ukrainian investigators exhume our bodies from a mass grave web site in Izium in September. Investigators had been hoping to seek out and doc attainable proof of conflict crimes, and likewise to have the ability to determine these buried right here with no title.

Claire Harbage/NPR

Barros reviewed the doc and located it seemed genuine. He additionally identified that the knowledge matches different open-source details about the place the 53rd’s affiliated models had been.

The affirmation that the brigade had been combating in Izium might be vital to Ukrainian and Western prosecutors seeking to discover justice for attainable conflict crimes, to not point out the households of the victims of MH17.

A infamous historical past

The connection between the 53rd Brigade and Malaysia Airways Flight 17 was first made by open-source investigators at Bellingcat.

Individually, a Joint Investigation Group made up of a number of international locations that misplaced residents because of the downing of MH17 concluded after years of labor {that a} missile system provided by the 53rd Brigade was behind the crash.

Final month at The Hague, the Joint Investigation Group introduced some last findings and supplied beautiful new particulars. The investigators performed intercepted cellphone calls of Russian-backed separatists that had been combating in japanese Ukraine in 2014.

Australian officer and member of MH17 Joint Investigation Group David McLean speaks throughout a press convention on the outcomes of the continued investigation at EU Company for Prison Justice Cooperation (Eurojust) headquarters in The Hague on Feb. 8.

Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP by way of Getty Photos


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Australian officer and member of MH17 Joint Investigation Group David McLean speaks throughout a press convention on the outcomes of the continued investigation at EU Company for Prison Justice Cooperation (Eurojust) headquarters in The Hague on Feb. 8.

Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP by way of Getty Photos

Utilizing these calls, investigators concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself was finally behind the switch of an anti-aircraft system — the identical system that finally shot down Flight MH17. It underscored that the 53rd Brigade’s deadly actions had been at Putin’s route.

Russian-backed separatists within the space after the airplane crashed did not seem to point out remorse for the incident, in accordance with Russian army skilled Tom Bullock.

“There are a number of images discovered on their social media accounts displaying them posing subsequent to mess from the plane, standing subsequent to the Malaysia Airways brand and posing for images for his or her social media,” Bullock mentioned.

The unit’s painful legacy

Piet Ploeg misplaced his brother, his brother’s spouse and their son on the airplane. His brother’s stays had been by no means recognized.

“I at all times say our relations had been, actually, the primary non-Ukrainian victims of a conflict that began eight years in the past,” he mentioned. “So all the pieces [that] offers us details about the function of Russia in Ukraine is, for us, vital as a result of it helps us to type … world opinion in regards to the function of Russia in Ukraine.”

Piet Ploeg, who misplaced his brother, his sister-in-law and his nephew in MH17, arrives at Schiphol airport within the Netherlands in 2020. Ploeg is the chairman of the MH17 Catastrophe Basis that was established within the aftermath of the July 17, 2014, downing of the Malaysia Airways flight.

Peter Dejong/AP


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Peter Dejong/AP


Piet Ploeg, who misplaced his brother, his sister-in-law and his nephew in MH17, arrives at Schiphol airport within the Netherlands in 2020. Ploeg is the chairman of the MH17 Catastrophe Basis that was established within the aftermath of the July 17, 2014, downing of the Malaysia Airways flight.

Peter Dejong/AP

The affirmation of the 53rd’s latest actions can be vital for individuals like Silene Fredriksz, whose son was killed within the downing of MH17.

“Our lives modified fully. We had a household with 5 kids, and now they’re solely 4,” she mentioned. “And nothing, and no person, can fill within the gaps that they left. It hits you in each facet of your life. I am not the identical individual as I used to be earlier than. It is a life earlier than and a life after. And it is very laborious. Nonetheless very laborious.”

She’s paid particular consideration to the 53rd and continues to be haunted by the unit’s lethal choices. Details about the unit and the Russian army’s actions assist her course of her grief.

Silene (left) and Rob Fredriksz speak about their son Bryce and his girlfriend, Daisy, who had been among the many 298 individuals killed when the the MH17 flight was shot down by a missile in 2014, at their home in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2020.

Peter Dejong/AP


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Peter Dejong/AP


Silene (left) and Rob Fredriksz speak about their son Bryce and his girlfriend, Daisy, who had been among the many 298 individuals killed when the the MH17 flight was shot down by a missile in 2014, at their home in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 2020.

Peter Dejong/AP

“[I] watch all the pieces that has something to do with the conflict now happening and all the pieces that has to do with MH17, Russia, Ukraine,” she mentioned. “I’ll by no means have closure. … However once we get to know a part of the reality, [it] offers us relaxation.”

Shortly earlier than the publication of this story, President Vladimir Putin signed a brand new decree in regards to the 53rd Brigade.

Apparently unconcerned about how it will look to the surface world, he ordered that the unit be given a brand new honorary designation: the title of “Guards,” a time period reserved for supposedly elite Russian models.

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