WASHINGTON: The United States believes that Moscow provided Ukrainian rebels with the missile launchers that downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, and moved them back into Russia after the plane was hit, US newspapers reported late Saturday.
A US official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Washington Post that intelligence services were “starting to get indications… a little more than a week ago” that three Russian launchers had been moved into Ukraine.
The Post said Vitaly Nayda, Ukraine’s counterintelligence chief, had photographs and related evidence that three Buk M-1 anti-aircraft missile systems moved from rebel-held territory into Russia early Friday, less than 12 hours after the plane was downed.
“We do believe they were trying to move back into Russia at least three Buk [missile launch]systems,” the US official told The Post.
Kiev has accused pro-Moscow militias of using a Russian-supplied Buk system to down the jet after confusing it with a Ukrainian military transporter.
According to Nayda, two anti-aircraft systems were spotted entering Russia at 2 a.m. on Friday, one with its full complement of four missiles but the other apparently missing a missile.
Two hours later, at 4 a.m., Nayda said a convoy of vehicles that included one of the launchers crossed into Russia.
The Buk systems, also known as the SA-11 Gadfly, are self-propelled tracked vehicles that carry surface-to-air missiles.
US President Barack Obama and major world leaders believe that the Malaysia Airlines jet was blown out of the sky at 33,000 feet by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-controlled territory.
The attack killed all 298 people on board.
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.
The Journal also quoted the official as saying new US intelligence assessments indicate that Moscow likely provided pro-Russia separatists with sophisticated anti-aircraft systems in recent days, matching the evidence put forward by Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin rejects 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.
Meanwhile, the scores of bodies that had been gathered at the main Ukraine crash site of Malaysian plane MH17 have been removed, an Agence France-Presse reporter on the scene said on Sunday.
Pro-Russian rebels who had been guarding the impact site also appeared to have left, with about a dozen stretchers, paper masks and plastic gloves abandoned at the scene.
Poles marking locations where bodies had been found in the field have also been removed.
European security body OSCE said on Saturday evening that 55 body bags and 55 markings indicating human remains were seen at the site.