Families of MH17 victims sue ex-rebel leader for $1.2 billion

MOSCOW - Relatives of MH17 crash victims have filed a nearly US$900-million (S$1.2-billion) suit against a former leader of Ukrainian insurgents over the shooting down of the passenger jet in July last year.

A writ filed in Chicago on Wednesday claimed that Igor Strelkov, a Russian citizen, was acting with the "actual or apparent" authority of President Vladimir Putin's government when the Malaysia Airlines jet was blown out of the sky, killing all 298 people on board.

Relatives of 17 victims are being represented by a US-based firm specialising in aviation litigation which is claiming US$50 million for each of the plaintiffs' loved ones or a total of US$850 million.

Strelkov, who also goes by the name Igor Girkin, is a self-proclaimed former Russian intelligence agent who spearheaded the Ukrainian insurgency until last August and is now based in Russia.

Strelkov's wife Miroslava, who acts as his spokeswoman, said the former rebel would not comment.

"What does he have to do with this anyway," she said on Russian radio.

In an online comment later Thursday, the mustachioed rebel said he did not have US$900 million and derided the families of the victims who include British nationals.

"It is deeply symptomatic that British people 'valued' the lives of their relatives in monetary terms," he wrote.

"All their morality and all their 'universal human values' have a monetary equivalent. That is what I've been fighting my whole life and am ready to fight in the future."

'Terrible losses'

Attorney Floyd Wisner told AFP that the lawsuit was not about money.

"It has everything to do with finding the answers to this criminal event and bringing the perpetrators to justice," he said in an emailed statement.

"Our clients do not want their terrible losses to be forgotten." "We believe Mr. Girkin has important information about these acts and we challenge him to appear and respond to this lawsuit."

The court papers say that Flight 17 flew over the airspace of the area in which the "rebel army was waging its war activities and the rebel army under the command responsibility of defendant Girkin shot down the subject Boeing 777-200 aircraft."

"Defendant Girkin ordered, aided and/or abetted this action and/or conspired with those persons who fired the missile or missiles," they claim.

One of the plaintiffs also lodged a case against Malaysia Airlines, accusing the airline of operating the flight over an "internationally recognised conflict zone." The lawsuit was filed almost a year to the day when the passenger jet travelling between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur went down on July 17 during some of the worst fighting between government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

All 298 passengers and crew on board - most of them Dutch - died.

Ukraine and the West have accused the separatists of using a Buk surface-to-air missile supplied by Moscow to down the Boeing.

Russia has denied the claim and suggested that a Ukrainian missile may have hit it.

In a bid to counter raging accusations that he was personally guilty, an ashen-faced Putin recorded a late-night video address soon after the tragedy, urging the West and Kiev not to exploit the disaster for political gain.

Malaysia earlier this month formally asked the United Nations to establish an international tribunal that it said would guarantee an independent trial for those behind the MH17 disaster.

Putin, speaking to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Thursday, said that establishing such a court would be both premature and counterproductive.

Putin also lashed out at reported leaks from the Dutch investigation as "clearly politicised", after CNN cited unnamed sources as saying the report found the rebels responsible.

The claim lodged by the families "is unlikely to succeed in obtaining damages from Girkin or the Russian government, but may provide the legal basis for future sanctions against Moscow," said risk advisory company Verisk Maplecroft.

The downing of the plane unleashed a storm of global condemnation and led the West to announce more sanctions against Russia, targeting entire sectors of its economy.