US: Russia gave rebels missile launchers
THE United States believes Moscow provided Ukrainian rebels with the missile launchers that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, and moved them back into Russia after it was hit.
The missile system used to shoot down the Malaysian airliner was handed to pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine by Moscow, the top US diplomat said yesterday.
"It's pretty clear that this is a system that was transferred from Russia in the hands of separatists," US Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN, as he also slammed the "grotesque" scenes at the crash site where he said rebels were hampering the investigation and the proper removal of bodies of 298 victims.
Vitaly Nayda, the head of counterintelligence for the Ukrainian State Security Service, displayed photographs that he said showed the three Buk-M1 missile systems on the road to the Russian border.
Two of the devices, missile launchers mounted on armoured vehicles, crossed the border into Russia about 2am on Friday, or less than 10 hours after the jet, MH17, was blown apart in midair, he said. One had its full complement of four missiles but the other was apparently missing a missile.
The third weapon crossed about 4am.
Mr Nayda said that the missile had been fired from the town of Snizhne, in rebel-controlled territory, echoing US intelligence showing the missile coming from eastern Ukraine.
The Buk systems, also known as the SA-11 Gadfly, are self-propelled tracked vehicles that carry surface-to-air missiles.
Ukraine accuses Russia of helping the militias to hide and destroy key evidence that could prove their alleged involvement.
"The assumption is they're trying to remove evidence of what they did," an unnamed senior US official told The Wall Street Journal.
US and European leaders have piled pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to back down on eastern Ukraine, but he rejected all charges of providing funding or military support to the pro-Russian insurgents, and blames Ukrainian authorities for the tragedy.
Rebel commanders have also denied being in possession of any functioning Buk systems.
The allegations of a cover-up, both to hide the weapons in the hours immediately after the missile strike and to stop investigators from collecting evidence, threatened to inflame an already highly charged event.
"This is a moment of truth for Mr Putin and for Russia," Mr Kerry said. "Russia needs to step up and prove its bona fides, if there are any left, with respect to its willingness to put actions behind the words."
Officials from Malaysia and the Netherlands, which had the most citizens aboard the plane, urged that the crash site be secured and that recovery operations be allowed to proceed.
Liow Tiong Lai, the Malaysian transportation minister, said that the crash had become "a geopolitical issue, but we must not forget that it is a human tragedy".
The scale of the disaster could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve the crisis in Ukraine.
AFP, NYT, REUTERS