Ukraine rebel commander acknowledges fighters had BUK missile

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Ukraine rebel commander acknowledges fighters had BUK missile
A pro-Russian fighter places a black box from the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on a table while handing it over from Donetsk People's Republic officials to Malaysian representatives in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Bowing to international pressure Monday, pro-Moscow separatists released a train packed with bodies and handed over the black boxes from the downed Malaysia Airlines plane, four days after it plunged into rebel-held eastern Ukraine. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A pro-Russian fighter stands next to bodies of crew members of destroyed Ukrainian tank in the northern outskirts of city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Tuesday, July 22, 2014. The soldiers were reportedly killed in fighting between rebels and government forces Monday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Pro-Russian rebels, right, followed by members of the OSCE mission, walk by plane wreckage as they arrive for a media briefing at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. A team of Malaysian investigators visited the site along with members of the OSCE mission for the first time since last week's crash. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian rebel holds a gun passing by plane wreckage as members of the OSCE mission to Ukrainearrive for a media briefing at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. A team of Malaysian investigators visited the site along with members of the OSCE mission in Ukraine for the first time since the air crash last week. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian rebel's helmet is placed on the back seat of a vehicle at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. A team of Malaysian investigators visited the site along with members of the OSCE mission in Ukraine for the first time since the air crash last week. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian rebel touches the MH17 wreckage at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. A team of Malaysian investigators visited the site along with members of the OSCE mission in Ukraine for the first time since the air crash last week. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian rebel points his hand as Malaysian air crash investigators examine the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. A team of Malaysian investigators visited the site along with members of the OSCE mission in Ukraine for the first time since the air crash last week.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian fighter stands guard next to bodies near a destroyed Ukrainian tank in the northern outskirts of the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Tuesday, July 22, 2014. The soldiers were reportedly killed in fighting between rebels and government forces Monday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in Samara, Russia, Monday, July 21, 2014. Putin has lambasted those who use the downing of a passenger jet in eastern Ukraine for "mercenary objectives," the Kremlin said Monday. In a statement posted on the Kremlin website, Putin again lashed out at Ukraine for ongoing violence with pro-Russian rebels in the eastern part of the country. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
Russian President Vladimir Putin makes notes during a meeting in Samara, Russia, Monday, July 21, 2014. Putin has lambasted those who use the downing of a passenger jet in eastern Ukraine for "mercenary objectives," the Kremlin said Monday. In a statement posted on the Kremlin website, Putin again lashed out at Ukraine for ongoing violence with pro-Russian rebels in the eastern part of the country. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)
Bodies of crew members lie next to a destroyed Ukrainian tank in the northern outskirts of city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Tuesday, July 22, 2014. The soldiers were reportedly killed in fighting between rebels and government forces Monday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A pro-Russian fighter stands near a destroyed Ukrainian tank in the northwestern outskirts of city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Tuesday, July 22, 2014. The soldiers were reportedly killed in fighting between rebels and government forces Monday. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
A pro-Russian rebel speaks on the phone as a refrigerated train loaded with bodies of the passengers departs the station in Torez, eastern Ukraine, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Monday, July 21, 2014. Another 21 bodies have been found in the sprawling fields of east Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, killing all 298 people aboard. International indignation over the incident has grown as investigators still only have limited access to the crash site and it remains unclear when and where the victims' bodies will be transported. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Pro-Russian rebels walk on the platform as a refrigerated train loaded with bodies of the passengers departs the station in Torez, eastern Ukraine, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Monday, July 21, 2014. Another 21 bodies have been found in the sprawling fields of east Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, killing all 298 people aboard. International indignation over the incident has grown as investigators still only have limited access to the crash site and it remains unclear when and where the victims' bodies will be transported.(AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian rebel shouts as members of the OSCE mission to Ukraine and Holland's National Forensic Investigations Team inspect a refrigerated train loaded with the bodies of passengers in Torez, eastern Ukraine, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Monday, July 21, 2014. Another 21 bodies have been found in the sprawling fields of east Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, killing all 298 people aboard. International indignation over the incident has grown as investigators still only have limited access to the crash site and it remains unclear when and where the victims' bodies will be transported. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian rebel covers his nose due to the smell of decomposing bodies as members of the OSCE mission to Ukraine and Holland's National Forensic Investigations Team inspect a refrigerated train loaded with the bodies of passengers in Torez, eastern Ukraine, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Monday, July 21, 2014. Another 21 bodies have been found in the sprawling fields of east Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, killing all 298 people aboard. International indignation over the incident has grown as investigators still only have limited access to the crash site and it remains unclear when and where the victims' bodies will be transported. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A woman stares at a a pro-Russian rebel outside the railway station where a refrigerated train loaded with the bodies of passengers is stationed in Torez, eastern Ukraine, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Monday, July 21, 2014. Another 21 bodies have been found in the sprawling fields of east Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, killing all 298 people aboard. International indignation over the incident has grown as investigators still only have limited access to the crash site and it remains unclear when and where the victims' bodies will be transported. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Dana, the German shepherd, holds its own leash as a pro-Russian rebel holds a weapon while members of the OSCE mission to Ukraine and Holland's National Forensic Investigations team inspect a refrigerated train loaded with the bodies of passengers, in Torez, eastern Ukraine, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Monday, July 21, 2014. The train carrying the bodies of over 200 passengers and crew of the Malaysia Airlines 17 left a station in the eastern Ukrainian town of Torez, Monday evening. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Dana, the German shepherd patrols along with a pro-Russian rebel next to a refrigerated train loaded with the bodies of passengers in Torez, eastern Ukraine, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Monday, July 21, 2014. Another 21 bodies have been found in the sprawling fields of east Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, killing all 298 people aboard. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
A pro-Russian rebel stands outside the railway station after members of the OSCE mission to Ukraine and Holland's National Forensic Investigations Team inspected a refrigerated train loaded with the bodies of passengers in Torez, eastern Ukraine, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Monday, July 21, 2014. Another 21 bodies have been found in the sprawling fields of east Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, killing all 298 people aboard. International indignation over the incident has grown as investigators still only have limited access to the crash site and it remains unclear when and where the victims' bodies will be transported. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
Dana, the German shepherd patrols along a platform with a pro-Russian rebel next to a refrigerated train loaded with the bodies of passengers in Torez, eastern Ukraine, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Monday, July 21, 2014. Another 21 bodies have been found in the sprawling fields of east Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, killing all 298 people aboard. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)
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By Anton Zverev

(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 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 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."

CIVILIAN FLIGHT

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."

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