(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 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.
"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 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."
The bodies of the first victims from the airliner arrived back in the Netherlands Wednesday amid dignified grief tinged with anger.
Bells pealed and flags flew at half mast in memory of the 298 people killed when flight MH17 crashed in an area of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists, in the first national day of mourning since wartime Queen Wilhelmina died in 1962. King Willem-Alexander and Prime Minister Mark Rutte led dignitaries on the tarmac as two military aircraft carrying 40 plain wooden coffins landed at Eindhoven Airport in the southern Netherlands.
A military honor guard stood to attention as a lone trumpeter played The Last Post, the military funeral call for people killed in war.
After a minute's silence - observed in stations, factories, offices and streets across this stunned nation - soldiers and marines boarded the Dutch Hercules C-130 and Australian Boeing C-17 to carry the coffins to 40 waiting hearses lined up on the runway.
Relatives of some of the victims were present at the airport but were shielded from the media glare, officials said.
Amid U.S. accusations that the rebels shot the civilian plane down in error with a Russian-supplied missile, an opinion poll showed an overwhelming majority of the Dutch want economic sanctions imposed on Moscow, even if it hurts their own economy.
Windmills around this low-lying coastal nation were set in a mourning position and church bells tolled as the planes carrying the remains arrived from Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, shortly before 4 p.m.
The remains of an unknown number of victims were transported in refrigerated rail carriages from the rebel-held part of Ukraine on Tuesday. Rutte has said that while some of the bodies may be identified immediately, it may take weeks or even months to complete the grim task.
SHOCK AND SORROW
With 193 of the dead from the Netherlands, Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said almost every family in the country of 15 million knew someone who died or their relatives, contributing to a national mood of shock and sorrow.
"Think of all the people who were flying away on holiday, all the young people who had just finished their final school exams," said Jikkie van der Giessen from Amsterdam.
"They were looking fully toward the future and then you're shot down. Whether it was an accident or on purpose, the fact is it's horrible," she said.
Many of the passengers on the flight to Kuala Lumpur were tourists, but at least six were AIDS experts on their way to a conference in Melbourne, Australia on the deadly disease.
Representatives of the many countries whose citizens died in the crash were present at the airfield, including the governor-general of Australia, Peter Cosgrove. Their flags lined the airfield at half-mast on a cloudless day.
Trains came to a stop for a minute as the country observed a minute's silence. No planes took off or landed at Schiphol Airport, from which the Malaysian Airlines flight departed, for 13 minutes around the time the bodies land.
A silent memorial rally was planned outside the royal palace in Amsterdam's Dam square on Wednesday evening.
With so many of their countrymen dead, the Dutch have been taking a leading role in the international effort to recover and identify the bodies and investigate the cause of the crash.
Investigators looking into the causes of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 last week said they have found no evidence the airliner's black box voice recorder had been tampered with.
"The Cockpit Voice Recorder was damaged but the part that contains the data was intact," the Dutch Safety Board said in a statement on Wednesday. "Nor was there any evidence or indication that (it) had been manipulated."
The board said it would now work on assessing the information it had downloaded from the black box, a process which would need more time. It said examination of the airliner's other black box, the Flight Data Recorder, would start on Thursday.
From Eindhoven, the bodies were to be driven in a convoy of hearses to a military barracks near the town of Hilversum, where forensics experts will begin the painstaking work of putting names to the remains.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it was unclear how many bodies had been transported to Kharkiv and how may have been left behind at the crash site.
Rutte, thrust into an unaccustomed spotlight, said on Tuesday the disaster had fundamentally changed the way the Dutch view Russia, urging the European Union to unite behind a firm approach to force Moscow to cooperate with the probe.
He has spoken almost daily with U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other European leaders to coordinate the return of the bodies and discuss the investigation and the consequences.
With U.S. intelligence pointing to the aircraft having been shot down accidentally by the Moscow-backed separatists, the Dutch mood of sorrow is starting to be mixed with indignation.
The poll published in the daily De Telegraaf said 78 percent of the Dutch would be prepared to impose punitive sanctions on Russia even if it hurt their own economy.
The Netherlands has disproportionately large trade and financial flows with Moscow due to its position as an oil and commodities trading hub and an offshore base for companies.
The loss of life has few parallels in recent Dutch history. More than 200 Dutch citizens died in the 1977 Tenerife airport disaster, in which two fully-loaded Boeing 747s collided on the ground with the loss of 583 lives, the world's worst civil aviation disaster.
The worst post-war disaster in the Netherlands occurred in 1953, when the North Sea flooded low-lying eastern areas one stormy night, sweeping over dikes to take more than 1,800 lives.
Additional reporting by Lucien Libert; Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Paul Taylor
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