One of the major rebel commanders in eastern Ukraine, Alexander Khodakovsky, in his interview with Reuters acknowledged that rebels may have received the Buk missile system from Russia and said it could have been sent back subsequently to remove proof of its presence.
“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.
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.
However, it is still unclear where did those missile systems come from. Khodakovsky added the separatists had seized several Buk systems from Ukrainian bases, but none of them were operational.
“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,” he said, according to Reuters
“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 in circumstances when there was an air attack on my positions, to protect people’s lives.”
Nevertheless, the rebel leader blamed Ukrainian authorities for provoking the shooting down of the doomed airliner, claiming that Kiev had deliberately launched air strikes in the area, knowing the missiles were in place.
“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.”
The Mr. Khodakovsky’s comments came as the Ukrainian government implied Russia had been behind the shooting down of two fighter jets Wednesday, near where MH17 was shot down last week killing 298 on board.
The suggestion that the rebels had the technology to bring down MH17 matches claims by Washington and Kiev, but was denied by rebel leader and prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Borodai on Wednesday.
“No, we didn’t get a BUK, there were no BUKs in the area,” he said.