Criminal proceedings are set to commence against four individuals accused of murder in connection with the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine six years ago.

The four initial suspects are being prosecuted, in absentia, in a Dutch court in the The Hague over the 298 fatalities which resulted when the Boeing 777-200ER was shot down by a surface-to-air missile in July 2014.

Arrest warrants were issued for the four – Igor Girkin, Sergei Dubinskiy, Oleg Pulatov and Leonid Kharchenko – in June last year, following an in-depth accident investigation and a parallel criminal probe.

Proceedings in The Hague will begin on 9 March.

The joint investigation between the Netherlands and four other countries, Ukraine, Malaysia, Belgium and Australia, is continuing and the five participants signed a co-operation extension agreement on the eve of the trial.

Deputy chief public prosecutor Digna van Boetzelaer says the inquiry is a “long-term task” and that the trial “does not mean the investigation is finished”.

She says the proceedings mark “an important step towards finding truth and accountability”.

The Netherlands became the scene of another high-profile trial two decades ago, when two suspects were prosecuted for the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am Boeing 747 over Scotland.

Prosecutors believe MH17 was shot down by a missile fired from an Almaz-Antey Buk mobile launcher during a period of conflict in eastern Ukraine. Several strikes against military aircraft had preceded the attack on the 777, but the airspace over the region – while restricted – had not been fully closed to commercial traffic.