Villagers in eastern Ukraine have told Reuters they saw a missile flying directly overhead just before a Malaysian airliner was shot out of the sky on July 17 last year, providing the most detailed accounts to date that suggest it was fired from territory held by pro-Russian rebels, Censor.NET reports.
The accounts from four villagers of Chervonyi Zhovten, which was then and is now controlled by the rebels, are significant because they indicate the rocket was in the early stages of its flight path. That would mean it must have been launched from rebel ground nearby, challenging the suggestion of Moscow and the separatists that the plane was brought down by the Ukrainian military. At the time, the nearest Ukrainian-held area was about 6 km (3.7 miles) away.
Until now, videos, photographs and accounts from residents have pointed to a BUK battery being delivered to the rebel-held town of Snizhne, 7 km north of Chervonyi Zhovten, on July 17, and then driven away from the area some time later. Its precise location at the time the plane was shot down has never been confirmed.
Now one of the villagers has told Reuters that a missile battery was positioned in a field near Chervonyi Zhovten on the day the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, crashed to earth. A former rebel fighter corroborated this.
On the afternoon of July 17, Valentyna Kovalenko was digging up potatoes in her garden in Chervonyi Zhovten, a village which name translates as Red October in honor of Russia's Communist revolution of 1917. "It took off, at first we thought that a plane was crashing. But it was a rocket," said Kovalenko, 45, who then saw what she thought was smoke coming from the 'Progress' mine in Torez, a town 9.5 km away to the north-west.
Her daughter Anastasia Kovalenko, 14, said she saw a rocket flying over the village, and then a plane in the distance blowing up.
Olga Krasilnikova, 30, also said she saw a rocket, some time between 4 and 5 p.m. "I saw it was flying, flew right over me. From that side," she said, pointing to the outskirts of the village . "I saw smoke in the sky, then I heard an explosion and I saw a huge blue (cloud of) smoke."
MH17, flying over eastern Ukraine towards the Russian border, came down around 4:20 p.m. local time. The biggest concentration of debris was found near Hrabove, about 20 km from Chervonyi Zhovten. Older BUK rockets have a range of around 25 to 35 km; the most modern can reach up to 45 km.
When Reuters visited the site in February, there were no signs of any missile launch.
Russian and separatist officials have said that Ukrainian military aircraft were overhead at the time the Malaysian airliner came down. They have said that if an anti-aircraft missile was launched in the vicinity, it was to bring down a Ukrainian warplane. They have also suggested a Ukrainian fighter aircraft may have shot down the Malaysian airliner.
A former rebel from the separatist Vostok battalion, who for security reasons asked to be identified only by his first name Igor, told Reuters that a BUK battery was in Chervonyi Zhovten on July 17, and he himself was not far from the village.
Igor said the battery's mission was to discourage Ukrainian Su-25 ground attack jets from attacking separatist targets in the area. A BUK missile had been launched against the Ukrainian jets half an hour before the Malaysia Airlines Boeing came down, forcing the Ukrainian pilots to pull out, he said.