A Ukrainian rebel leader told Reuters in an interview published on Wednesday that pro-Russian separatists possessed the type of missile system that U.S. officials say shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Alexander Khodakovsky, the leader of the Vostok Battalion in eastern Ukraine, one of the top fighting units for the separatist forces, said that it was a widely known fact that rebels had such weaponry. The rebels had previously seized non-operational “Buk” missiles from the Ukrainian military, but he said that it was possible that operational systems had come from Russia.
He referred to a Buk missile system that had come from Luhansk, one of the two rebel strongholds. The other is Donetsk, where Flight 17 crashed. He added that the missiles might have been transported out of the region, which Ukrainian officials have previously claimed.
“That BUK I know about. I heard about it. I think they sent it back,” he said. “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.”
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said last week that the United States believed a Buk missile — also known as an SA-11 — had been fired from rebel-controlled territory and brought down the commercial plane, killing all 298 passengers.
Khodakovsky did not confirm that the rebels in Donetsk, where the attack occurred, possessed those weapons or that they had fired on the plane. But his comments do confirm that such weaponry might have been available to rebels in the area. The separatists had previously bragged about possessing the missiles, according to Reuters, but the Donetsk group later denied it after the plane attack.
“What resources our partners have, we cannot be entirely certain,” he said. “Was there (a BUK)? Wasn’t there? If there was proof that there was, then there can be no question.”
Reuters reported that Khodakovsky, who is Ukrainian, had experienced some friction with rebels from Russia — including Igor Strelkov, the feared separatist leader in Donetsk who had allegedly boasted on social media of shooting down an airplane at about the same time Flight 17 crashed.
Khodakovsky still blamed the Ukrainian government for the attack, saying that the government had provoked a response by launching airstrikes in the area.
“Even if there was a BUK, and even if the BUK was used,” he said, “Ukraine did everything to ensure that a civilian aircraft was shot down.”