By Anton Zverev
DONETSK, Ukraine, July 23 (Reuters) - 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 accused 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 took place.
"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."
Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Khodakovsky's remarks confirmed what U.S. officials had long been saying, that "Russian-backed separatists have received arms, training and support from Russia."
But she dismissed the rebel leader's efforts to blame the Kiev government for the downing of the airliner, calling it "another attempt to try to muddy the water and move the focus from facts."
Washington believes that pro-Russian separatists most likely shot down the airliner "by mistake," not realizing 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.
"While we may not yet know who actually fired the missile, we have assessed that it was an SA-11 and that it came from a Russian-backed separatist-controlled area," Lainez said.
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 theater 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."
(Additional reporting by David Alexander in Washington; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Giles Elgood and Mohammad Zargham)
BEFORE YOU GO
07/25/2014 11:29 PM EDT
Document: EU Extends Russia Sanctions
A document shows that EU sanctions ar targeting Russian businesses, the AP reports:
A European Union document shows that among those targeted by the EU-wide asset freeze and travel ban are Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Russian Federal Security.
Also targeted is Sergei Beseda, head of the FSB service that oversees international operations and intelligence activity.
07/25/2014 5:21 PM EDT
AP Journalists Saw Rebels With BUK Missiles Hours Before MH17 Crashed
Associated Press journalists in Ukraine saw a BUK missile system -- the type that the US says downed Flight MH17 -- in rebel hands just hours before the plane was shot down, the news agency says in detailed account of the day's events. AP says that while the rebels officially deny responsibility, "the denials are increasingly challenged by accounts of residents, the observations of journalists on the ground, and the statements of one rebel official." Further, one rebel official told AP that they were behind the plane tragedy.
More from the AP story:
A highly placed rebel, speaking to the AP this week, admitted that rebels were responsible. He said a unit based in the hometown of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, made up of both Russians and Ukrainians, was involved in the firing of an SA-11 from near Snizhne. The rebel, who has direct access to the inner circle of the insurgent leadership in Donetsk, said that he could not be named because he was contradicting the rebels' official line.
The rebels believed they were targeting a Ukrainian military plane, this person said. Instead, they hit the passenger jet flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people aboard were killed.
Read the full account here.
07/25/2014 2:59 PM EDT
White House: Russia 'Culpable' For Downed Jet
In a briefing on Friday, the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said there has been a "steady flow" of weapons from Russia into Ukraine, and emphasized the position that Russia played a role in the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal's Marketwatch reports.
Russia 'culpable' for Malaysia Air jet downed in Ukraine: White House http://t.co/bJR9bYh7js— MarketWatch (@MarketWatch) July 25, 2014
The Pentagon said on Friday that the transfer of missile systems from Russia to separatists in Ukraine appeared to be imminent. On Thursday, the U.S. claimed that Russia had fired on Ukrainian military positions.
07/25/2014 1:54 PM EDT
Ukrainian Security Release Tape Of Rebels Allegedly Discussing MH17
Ukraine's security service, SBU, on Friday released a recording it said was of a phone call between pro-Russian separatists discussing a plane overhead, minutes before the Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down over east Ukraine. “I see… Roger... Report it upstairs,” the rebel commander says, according to a translation.
Writing for Mashable, Christopher Miller notes that the recording has not been authenticated and the commander "stops short of giving the order to shoot down Flight 17," however the implication is clearly to build a case that the rebels shot down the plane.
07/25/2014 1:14 PM EDT
Russia Accuses U.S. Of 'Smear Campaign' Over Ukraine
Responding to U.S. officials assertion that Russia was firing artillery on Ukrainian military positions across the border, Russia on Friday countered by calling the claim a baseless "smear campaign,"AFP reports.
A statement from the Russian foreign ministry said, "Due to the smear campaign against us that the US Administration has begun... we reject the unfounded public insinuations that US deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf is spreading on a daily basis," adding that Harf has used "a basketful of these anti-Russian cliches," to influence perceptions of Russia. The statement refuted the U.S. State Departments claim on Russia targeting Ukraine military, saying "There are no facts or specifics about these falsehoods."
More from AFP.
-- Andrew Hart
07/25/2014 1:06 PM EDT
U.S. Ambassador: 15,000 Russian Troops At Border
#BREAKING: More than 15,000 Russian troops amassed along border with Ukraine: U.S. ambassador to NATO— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) July 25, 2014
07/25/2014 12:58 PM EDT
More On The Remarks Out Of The Pentagon
The Pentagon said on Friday the transfer of heavy caliber multiple launch rocket systems from
Russia to Ukrainian separatists appeared to be imminent, with the arms close enough to the border they could be handed over "potentially today."
"We have indications that the Russians intend to supply heavier and more sophisticated multiple launch rocket systems in the very near future," said Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, adding that the weapons were in the over-200mm range.
Warren indicated the weapons had been seen getting closer to the border and the Pentagon believed a transfer was imminent and "potentially today."
"We believe that they are able to transfer this equipment at any time, at any moment," he said.
07/25/2014 12:45 PM EDT
Pentagon Says Russia Is Readying Weapons For Transfer To Ukraine Rebels
Pentagon: Russia readying powerful weapons for rebels in Ukraine, transfer could happen any time. http://t.co/xZnfkBUWSV— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) July 25, 2014
07/25/2014 11:34 AM EDT
Australia To Send 100 Additional Police and Personnel To Secure Crash Site
(Reuters) - Australia will send 100 additional police and some defense force personnel to Europe to join a planned Dutch-led international security force to secure the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash site, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Friday.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers, some of whom will be armed, will join a contingent of 90 AFP officers already in London waiting for a deal with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to be approved by Ukraine's parliament.
"This is a humanitarian mission, with a clear and simple objective," Abbott told reporters. "I expect the operation on the ground in Ukraine, should the deployment go ahead, to last no longer than a few weeks."
Read the full story here.
07/25/2014 11:03 AM EDT
Russian Newspaper Runs Front Page Apology For MH17
A leading Russian newspaper has issued an apology on its front page, asking for forgiveness from the people of the Netherlands who lost their loved ones in the Malaysian Airlines plane crash. The front page of Novaya Gazeta on Friday featured the words "Vergeef ons, Nederlands" (Forgive Us, Netherlands) in bold above a heartbreaking image of the line of hearses carrying MH17 victim's bodies.
Read the full story on the Huffington Post here.