MH17 victims' families sue Russian rebel leader Igor Girkin for $900m over shooting down of plane

Social media posts linked to Igor Girkin claimed to have shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane on the day of the disaster last year

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A rebel commander in eastern Ukraine is reportedly being sued for allegedly ordering Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 to be shot down.

All 298 people on board died when the plane was hit by a Buk missile, which Russian manufacturers Almaz-Antey said was more than 15 years old.

On the day the Boeing 777 went down, posts attributed to rebel leader Igor Girkin claimed his fighters had shot down a Ukrainian military transport plane in the area.

A piece of the wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Donetsk

In a statement on Russian social network VKontakte, he reportedly claimed the downed aircraft was an Antonov-26.

The swiftly-deleted post, accompanied by a video of rising smoke, said: “We warned them - don’t fly in our sky.”

Separatist forces operating around the crash site in Hrabove, Donetsk Oblast, have since denied any involvement but Girkin has now been named in a lawsuit seeking $900 million (£575 million) in damages for the families of 18 passengers – six of them British.

A writ was filed in Chicago on Wednesday alleging that Girkin had the Russian government’s approval to fire on MH17 in July last year and “ordered, aided and/or abetted this action and/or conspired with those persons who fired the missile”, The Telegraph reported.

A photograph released by Ukraine’s security services claiming to prove that Russian-made BUK-M1 surface-to-air missile systems were inside the rebel-held area near the crash site

Floyd Wisner, the lawyer leading the action, told the newspaper the case was “not about money” but sought to get answers from Girkin and put pressure on Russia to co-operate with international investigations into the disaster.

Known by his nom-de-guerre Strelkov, meaning “Shooter” in Russian, Girkin is a Russian citizen with a military background including service in Chechnya, Serbia and Trans-Dniester, the BBC reported.

A prominent figure in the early stages of the Ukrainian rebel insurgency last year, he commanded rebel forces in their symbolic stronghold of Slovyansk and claims he was a reserve colonel in the FSB, Russia's Federal Security Service, until March  2013.

The EU believes he works for Russian military intelligence agency the GRU and has placed him under sanctions but he has not been afraid to criticise Moscow for failing to intervene directly against Ukraine.

In an interview published in November in nationalist Russian newspaper Zavtra, he claimed to have started the continuing conflict between government troops and separatist rebels, which has killed more than 6,500 people so far.

“I'm the one who pulled the trigger of war. If our squad hadn't crossed the border, it all would have ended like in Kharkiv or Odessa,” he said.

“Our squad set the flywheel of war in motion. We reshuffled all the cards on the table.”

The Dutch Safety Board, which is investigating the MH17 crash because most of the victims were from the Netherlands, is expected to present its findings by October.