A BUK missile system.
A powerful Ukrainian rebel leader has confirmed that
pro-Russian separatists had an anti-aircraft missile of the
type Washington says was used to shoot down Malaysia Airlines
flight MH17 and it could have originated in Russia.
In an interview with Reuters, Alexander Khodakovsky,
commander of the Vostok Battalion, acknowledged for the first
time since the airliner was brought down in eastern Ukraine
on Thursday that the rebels did possess the BUK missile
system and said it could have been sent back subsequently to
remove proof of its presence.
Before the Malaysian plane was shot down, rebels had boasted
of obtaining the BUK missiles, which can shoot down airliners
at cruising height. But since the disaster the separatists'
main group, the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk,
has repeatedly denied ever having possessed such weapons.
Since the airliner crashed with the loss of all 298 on board,
the most contentious issue has been who fired the missile
that brought the jet down in an area where government forces
are fighting pro-Russian rebels.
Khodakovsky blamed the Kiev authorities for provoking what
may have been the missile strike that destroyed the doomed
airliner, saying Kiev had deliberately launched air strikes
in the area, knowing the missiles were in place.
"I knew that a BUK came from Luhansk. At the time I was told
that a BUK from Luhansk was coming under the flag of the
LNR," he said, referring to the Luhansk People's Republic,
the main rebel group operating in Luhansk, one of two rebel
provinces along with Donetsk, the province where the crash
"That BUK I know about. I heard about it. I think they sent
it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment
that I found out that this tragedy had taken place. They
probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its
presence," Khodakovsky told Reuters on Tuesday.
"The question is this: Ukraine received timely evidence that
the volunteers have this technology, through the fault of
Russia. It not only did nothing to protect security, but
provoked the use of this type of weapon against a plane that
was flying with peaceful civilians," he said.
"They knew that this BUK existed; that the BUK was heading
for Snezhnoye," he said, referring to a village 10 km (six
miles) west of the crash site. "They knew that it would be
deployed there, and provoked the use of this BUK by starting
an air strike on a target they didn't need, that their planes
hadn't touched for a week."
"And that day, they were intensively flying, and exactly at
the moment of the shooting, at the moment the civilian plane
flew overhead, they launched air strikes. Even if there was a
BUK, and even if the BUK was used, Ukraine did everything to
ensure that a civilian aircraft was shot down."
Washington believes that pro-Russian separatists most likely
shot down the airliner "by mistake," not realising it was a
civilian passenger flight, U.S. intelligence officials said.
The officials said the "most plausible explanation" for the
destruction of the plane was that the separatists fired a
Russian-made SA-11 - also known as a BUK - missile at it
after mistaking it for another kind of aircraft.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has said it is
convinced the airliner was brought down by an SA-11
ground-to-air missile fired from territory in eastern Ukraine
controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
Other separatist leaders have said they did not bring the
Malaysian plane down. Russia has denied involvement.
Khodakovsky is a former head of the "Alpha" anti-terrorism
unit of the security service in Donetsk, and one of the few
major rebel commanders in Donetsk who actually hails from
Ukraine rather than Russia.
There has been friction in the past between him and rebel
leaders from outside the region, such as Igor Strelkov, the
Muscovite who has declared himself commander of all rebel
forces in Donetsk province.
Khodakovsky said his unit had never possessed BUKs, but they
may have been used by rebels from other units.
"The fact is, this is a theatre of military activity occupied
by our, let's say, partners in the rebel movement, with which
our cooperation is somewhat conditional," he said.
"What resources our partners have, we cannot be entirely
certain. Was there (a BUK)? Wasn't there? If there was proof
that there was, then there can be no question."
Khodakovsky said it was widely known that rebels had obtained
BUKs from Ukrainian forces in the past, including three
captured at a checkpoint in April and another captured near
the airport in Donetsk. He said none of the BUKs captured
from Ukrainian forces were operational.
While he said he could not be certain where the BUK system
operating on rebel territory at the time of the air crash had
come from, he said it may have come from Russia.
"I'm not going to say Russia gave these things or didn't give
them. Russia could have offered this BUK under some entirely
local initiative. I want a BUK, and if someone offered me
one, I wouldn't turn it down. But I wouldn't use it against
something that did not threaten me. I would use it only under
circumstances when there was an air attack on my positions,
to protect people's lives."
He added: "I am an interested party. I am a 'terrorist', a
'separatist', a volunteer ... In any event, I am required to
promote the side I represent, even if I might think
otherwise, say otherwise or have an alternative view. This
causes real discomfort to my soul."