AMSTERDAM, Nov 17 (AFP) - Dutch judges convicted two Russian men and a Ukrainian man in absentia of murder for their role in the shooting down of Flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 with the loss of 298 passengers and crew, and handed them life sentences.

Ukraine welcomed the ruling, which will have implications for other court cases Kyiv has filed against Russia, while Moscow called the ruling "scandalous" and said it would not extradite its citizens.

Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 departed from Amsterdam and was bound for Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, as fighting raged between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, the precursor of this year's conflict.

The ruling came as a relief to victims' family members, more than 200 of whom attended the court in person, wiping away tears as the judgement was read.

"Only the most severe punishment is fitting to retaliate for what the suspects have done, which has caused so much suffering to so many victims and so many surviving relatives," Presiding Judge Hendrik Steenhuis said.

The three men convicted were former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy, and Leonid Kharchenko, a Ukrainian separatist leader.

The three were all found to have helped to arrange the transport into Ukraine of the Russian military BUK missile system that was used to shoot down the plane, though they were not the ones that physically pulled the trigger.

They are fugitives and believed to be in Russia. A fourth former suspect, Russian Oleg Pulatov, was acquitted on all charges.

The incident in 2014 left the plane's wreckage and victims' remains scattered across fields of corn and sunflowers.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February and claims to have annexed the Donetsk province where the plane was shot down.

"The families of victims wanted the truth and they wanted justice to be done and those responsible to be punished and that is what happened. I am pretty satisfied," Piet Ploeg, who heads a foundation representing victims, told Reuters. Ploeg's brother, his brother's wife and his nephew died on MH17.

Meryn O'Brien of Australia, who lost her 25-year old son Jack, said she felt relieved. "Everyone was relieved the process has come to an end, and it is very fair, and it has been meticulous."

"There's no celebration," said Jordan Withers of Britain, whose uncle Glenn Thomas died. "Nothing is going to bring any of the victims back." They came from 10 different countries.

The judgment included a 16 million euro damages award.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the first sentences handed down over MH17 as an "important decision" by the court in The Hague.

"But it is necessary that those who ordered it also end up in the dock because the feeling of impunity leads to new crimes," he wrote on Twitter. "We have to dispel this illusion. Punishment for all Russian atrocities - both then and now - will be inevitable."

The ruling found that Russia had "overall control" over the forces of the Donetsk People's Republic in Eastern Ukraine from mid May 2014.

"This is groundbreaking," said Marieke de Hoon, assistant professor of international law at Amsterdam University. The ruling was "authoritative" and would likely boost Ukraine's other international cases against Russia relating to the 2014 conflict.