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Oleg Tsarev, a withdrew candidate in the 2014 Ukrainian presidential election delivers a speech during celebrations of whate pro-Russian activists of what they claimed was resounding victory in an independence referendum in the eastern Ukrainian city of Lugansk, on May 12, 2014. Dimitar Dilkoff—AFP/Getty Images

Exclusive: Separatist Leader Says Rebels Did Not Shoot Down Flight MH17

Jul 17, 2014

Scenes from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17

A woman cries during a religious service held by villagers in memory of the victims at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, July 22, 2014.
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A woman cries during a religious service held by villagers in memory of the victims at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, July 22, 2014.Vadim Ghirda—AP
A woman cries during a religious service held by villagers in memory of the victims at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, July 22, 2014.
Members of a Dutch forensics team prepare to inspect rail cars where the bodies of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash victims were being held in Torez, Ukraine, July 21, 2014.
The bodies of victims of the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 arrive at the Torez train station in the back of a truck to be loaded into a refrigerated train car on July 21, 2014 in Torez, Ukraine.
Local residents gather to watch as the bodies of victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 are removed from the scene of the crash on July 21, 2014 in Grabovo, Ukraine.
Personnel from the Ukrainian Emergencies Ministry load the bodies of victims of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 into a truck at the crash site on July 21, 2014 in Grabovo, Ukraine.
An armed pro-Russian separatists gestures as he blocks the way to the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Grabove, in the region of Donetsk on July 20, 2014.
People search a wheat field for remains in the area of the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village of Hrabove, July 20, 2014.
Emergency Workers carry a body at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region July 19, 2014.
A rose lies on a plastic sheet covering a victim of a Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 plane which was downed on Thursday near the village of Rozsypne, in the Donetsk region July 18, 2014.
Miners inspect a piece of debris found in a field from an Air Malaysia plane on July 18, 2014 in Grabovka, Ukraine.
A group of miners prepare to search a field for debris and human remains from an Air Malaysia plane on July 18, 2014 in Grabovka, Ukraine.
A man looks at debris from an Air Malaysia plane crash on July 18, 2014 in Grabovka, Ukraine.
Self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the pro-Russian separatist "Donetsk People's Republic" Alexander Borodai stands as he arrives on the site of the crash of a malaysian airliner carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on July 17, 2014.
People walk amongst the debris at the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.
People walk amongst the debris at the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine, July 17, 2014.
The site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash is seen near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.
An Emergencies Ministry member works at putting out a fire at the site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.
Ukraine Plane
The wreckage of the Malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed on July 17, 2014 near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine.
Luggages are pictured on July 17, 2014 on the site of the crash of the malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine.
A woman and child walk past the crash site of a passenger plane near the village of Grabovo, Ukraine on Thursday, July 17, 2014.
The wreckage of the Malaysian airliner carrying 295 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur after it crashed, near the town of Shaktarsk, in rebel-held east Ukraine, July 17, 2014.
A woman cries during a religious service held by villagers in memory of the victims at the crash site of Malaysia Airlin
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Vadim Ghirda—AP
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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.

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