A Ukrainian rebel leader backtracked Thursday from his claim that pro-Russian separatists had an anti-aircraft missile of the type Washington says was used to shoot down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.
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Alexander Khodakovsky, in an interview with Reuters, had said the rebels in Eastern Ukraine possessed a Buk missile system — also known as an SA-11 system — and rebels could have been sent back subsequently to remove proof of its presence.
But Khodakovsky, the commander of the Vostok Battalion, now says Reuters put out wrong information.
"I’m waiting for the evidence from the U.S.,” Khodakovsky said.
"Did the separatists have a Buk or not … I myself would like to know. I can guarantee that our unit did not possess a Buk missile.”
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When asked by the CBC’s Susan Ormiston how Reuters could have gotten it wrong, Khodakovsky said the statements came from a conversation where he discussed "different versions of the information that’s out there.”
"I am satisfied only with the information I can get from official sources, nothing more. I know as much as the rest of the world,” Khodakovsky said.
The rebel leader also said that at no point during his hour-and-a-half long conversation, which he recorded, did he say rebels sent the Buk system back across the Russian border to conceal evidence.
"There are no excerpts where I would have said this," he said.
Khodakovsky also denied knowing how flight MH17 was downed.
Rebels had boasted about weapons
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, in his interview with Reuters, accused Kyiv authorities of possibly provoking the missile strike that destroyed the airliner, saying Kyiv had deliberately launched air strikes in the area, knowing 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.
'They knew this Buk existed'
"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 kilometres 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."
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.
Tepid rebel alliance
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 Kyiv 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 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.
Other separatist leaders have said they did not bring the Malaysian plane down, and Russia has denied involvement.