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MH17 investigators identify four suspects

An international team of investigators has identified four suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine nearly five years ago that killed 298 people, including 38 Australians.

The suspects are considered responsible for bringing a Buk anti-aircraft missile system from Russia into the conflict area in eastern Ukraine, a member of the Dutch-led investigation team told reporters.

The missile system came from the Russian military and was used to shoot down the jetliner over an area held by Moscow-backed rebels, according to the investigators.

The intention had been to "down a military plane", the investigation team's representative said at a televised press conference in the Dutch city of Nieuwegein.

The suspects were identified as Russian nationals Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinsky and Oleg Pulatov, and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko.

They have been placed on international wanted lists, with their trial intended to begin in March.

Girkin, a former colonel of Russia's Federal Security Service, was the highest military commander in a rebel group in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region at the time of the incident, according to the investigation team.

Both Dubinsky and Pulatov were connected with Russia's Military Intelligence Service, the investigation team said. The Ukrainian, Kharchenko, was in charge of a combat unit in Donetsk, it said.

The Boeing 777, which originated in Amsterdam and was en route to Malaysia, was shot down on July 17, 2014, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board. Most were Dutch nationals.

The joint investigation team is led by Dutch authorities and involves Malaysia, Australia, Belgium and Ukraine. It has researched numerous pieces of physical evidence, as well as photos, videos and testimonies relating to the crash.

Russia has denied any involvement in the incident and suggested the missile may have come from Ukraine's armed forces.

As news of the suspects came out, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman criticised the Dutch-led investigation as being one-sided.

"Russia has not been given the opportunity to take part," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in comments carried by state news agency TASS.

"From the very beginning, from the first days after this tragedy, it [Russia] showed the initiative and was eager to join the investigation into this awful crash," Peskov said.

Girkin meanwhile insisted that he's innocent. "Neither I nor any other separatist is to blame," he told the Russian news agency Interfax.

Known by the nom de guerre Strelkov ("Shooter"), Girkin said he would not testify in the Dutch-led legal proceedings against him. "The militia does not have anything to do with this," he said.

Russia is considered unlikely to extradite its citizens to face trial in the Netherlands. But Dutch prosecutors said the trial can take place even if the suspects are not present.

"This is an important milestone in the efforts to uncover the full truth and ensure that justice is done for the killing of 298 people from 17 countries," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

"I have full confidence in the independence and professionalism of the investigation and the Dutch legal system," he added.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the investigation was a "milestone in the search for truth".

Pompeo called on Russia to "ensure that any indicted individuals currently in Russia face justice."

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