A separatist commander in Ukraine admitted Wednesday that pro-Russian fighters possessed the surface-to-air BUK missiles that are believed to have brought down the Malaysia Airlines commercial flight in the east of the country last week.
Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok Battalion, told Reuters that separatist groups had possession of a missile system, but suggested that it might have been returned to Russia after the Malaysia airlines flight was shot down. “I knew that a BUK came from Luhansk,” he said, referring to another rebel-held town in Ukraine. “They probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence.”
The news came as the Ukrainian government implied Russia had been behind the shooting down of two fighter jets Wednesday, near where MH17 was shot down last week killing 298 on board.
Ukraine’s national security spokesperson Andriy Lysenko said that “preliminary investigations” have found that the attack on two Su-25 fighter jets came from the Russian side of the border, while Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk stayed just short of indicting the neighbor country.
“Look, we all know who’s behind the scene,” he said in an interview with the BBC.
The suggestion that the rebels had the technology to bring down MH17 matches claims by Washington and Kiev, but was denied by rebel leader and prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Borodai in an interview with BBC on Wednesday.
“No, we didn’t get a BUK, there were no BUKs in the area,” he said.
Heavy fighting in the area controlled by pro-Russian separatists has continued throughout the international emergency brought on by the MH17 disaster. A total of 35,549 people have been displaced by the conflict since July 1, and 18,600 have fled their homes only in the Donetsk province.
In total, 11 Ukrainian aircraft have been brought down in the conflict, but the latest strike on the two Su-25 fighters—so close in time and geography to the catastrophe of MH17—is sure to keep international focus on the cataclysmic situation in the region.
Separatists claim they hit the Su-25 fighters, which were returning from a mission, with shoulder-fired missiles in retaliation to Ukrainian bombing of civilians. However, Ukrainian officials said the jets were flying at an altitude exceeding the reach of such weapons.
The two pilots of the downed Su-15 jets both ejected, but are reportedly still missing.