Dutch-led investigators have released audio recordings that they say may implicate senior Russian government officials close to Vladimir Putin in the shootdown of Malaysian airlines flight MH17.
In an appeal for fresh witnesses released on Thursday, the five-country Joint Investigation Team said they wanted to know whether Vladislav Surkov, a senior advisor to Mr Putin, Sergei Shoigu, the Russian minister of defence, and Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service, played a role in the disaster.
"The JIT is looking for information on the persons within the military and administrative hierarchy who enabled the shooting down of MH17 in Eastern Ukraine using a BUK TELAR," the JIT said in a statement accompanying the recordings.
"The JIT wants to get in touch with further witnesses who are able to testify about these command lines and the role that Russian government officials might have had."
Fred Westerbeke, the Netherlands’ chief prosecutor, has previously said the investigation has "proof" of Russian involvement in the shoot down, but Thursday’s statement is the first explicit suggestion that the criminal investigation may lead to the Kremlin itself.
All 298 passengers and crew members were killed when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.
The victims included ten British citizens. The JIT, which involves Dutch, Australian, Belgian, Malaysian, and Ukrainian detectives, has concluded the Boeing 777 was destroyed by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists who were then fighting a secessionist war against Ukraine.
The missile and launch vehicle have been traced to a Russian army unit, and investigators believe it may have been crewed by Russian soldiers when the missile was fired.
Three Russians and one Ukrainian who held senior positions in the militant separatist movement were charged with murder in relation to the case in June.
Russia has always denied involvement in the war in Eastern Ukraine, which has claimed more than 13,000 lives since it broke out in April 2014.
However, the recordings released by the JIT on Thursday include telephone conversations purportedly between separatist commanders and officials referring to "orders" from Moscow.
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In one conversation, a separatist official tells a local commander: "We’re moving towards unity of command. What happens next is a bunch of men with a mandate from Shoigu will arrive and kick the local warlords the f**k out of the units."
In another, Alexander Borodai, the “prime minister” of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic at the time MH17 was shot down, is heard taking advice from Mr Surkov, a close aide to Mr Putin.
Mr Surkov, who is sometimes called Mr Putin’s “grey cardinal”, is referenced several times in the recordings, including in a conversation involving one “Vladimir Ivanovich” who appears to issue instructions to DPR leaders in Ukraine.
In another conversation with the same man, a suspected separatist says: “Aksyonov gave me your phone number. He said, it was agreed with Bortnikov.”
Sergei Aksyonov is a Crimean politician who was installed as governor of the peninsula after Russia annexed it from Ukraine earlier in 2014.
The JIT said in its appeal that it wanted to know to what extent the men were involved in the “planning and execution” of military operations in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, including deployment of the BUK.
The investigation also says it has interviewed witnesses who said the Federal Security Service, Russia’s main civilian intelligence agency, and the GRU, its military intelligence agency, were involved in the daily management of the DPR. Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, questioned the veracity of the recordings.
"What are they (the conclusions) based on? Publication of materials, some of which immediately turn out to be fake, and some of which don’t check out? We’ve been through this already," she said on Thursday.
Jordan Withers, whose uncle Glenn Thomas was killed on MH17, said:
“Unfortunately this news didn’t come as a shock to me. Ever since the BUK was revealed as the offending weapon, even as a lay person, I thought it looked like a military grade weapon not a weapon that a group of rebel of volunteers would have.
"However, the rank, position, nationality of the people who pressed the button and those in the chain command that gave the orders, doesn’t make a difference to me. I only care that they stand trial and face what ever punishment they deserve and we finally get the truth of what happened to my uncle and the other victims of MH17.
"My main fear is the more Russian involvement is revealed, the more the downing of MH17 becomes about politics and less about the awful human loss.”
The first suspects to be charged for shooting down MH17 are expected to be tried in absentia in the Netherlands in Spring.
Russians Igor "Strelkov" Girkin, Oleg Pulatov, and Sergic Dubinsky, and Ukrainian Leonid Kharchenko, are accused of procuring and organising the deployment of the Russian missile launcher used in the shootdown.
Mr Girkin, who was the "defence minister" of the DPR at the time, has publicly denied that the militia he commanded shot down the aircraft.