Rebels in eastern Ukraine tell TIME's Simon Shuster they lack the firepower to have shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Their recent record of surface-to-air attacks suggests otherwise
The pro-Russia separatist leader was not in a mood to discuss the downing of a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine on Thursday. He had heard about it on the news – 280 passengers and 15 crew on a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur – possibly shot out of the sky with a missile or some other projectile over the war-ravaged region of Donetsk.
Ukrainian officials had already laid the blame on the separatist rebels in that region. So who was responsible? Oleg Tsarev, one of the leaders of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, said the rebels did not shoot the plane down. “We don’t have weapons that can take down a plane from that altitude,” he told TIME, minutes after news of the crash broke.
But only three weeks ago they had plenty of those weapons. At the end of June, the Russian state media had congratulated the rebels on their latest military acquisition – a set of Russian-made BUK missile launchers seized from a Ukrainian air force base. “The Donetsk resistance fighters have captured an anti-aircraft military station,” declared the Kremlin’s main television network Vesti, which has been cheering on the rebel fighters since the war in eastern Ukraine began this spring. “The skies above Donetsk will now be protected by the BUK surface-to-air missile complex,” said the headline on the channel’s website.
The rebels quickly seemed to put their new rockets to work. The downing of Ukrainian military aircraft has become almost commonplace in recent days. An AN-26 military transport plane was shot down on Monday over eastern Ukraine, and the rebel leaders confirmed the same day that they had taken its four crew members hostage after they had ejected to safety. In the two days that followed, another two Ukrainian military aircraft, both of them SU-25 fighter jets, were reportedly shot down by the rebels. And Russian media trumpeted another rebel strike late on Thursday afternoon, claiming that a Ukrainian AN-24 had gone down over the town of Torez.
That was just a few hours before reports first emerged in the Russian media that Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 had been shot down over the town of Torez, just near the Russian border with Ukraine. The Ukrainian government and the rebel leaders immediately began trading blame. But the separatists’ claims that they lacked the firepower to shoot down that plane rang hollow. Asked about the BUK missiles that the rebels acquired in June – and apparently used successfully since then against the Ukrainian military – Tsarev said, “I have no more information for you,” and hung up the phone.