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An armed pro-Russia militant attempts to stop journalists from accessing the site of the crash of a Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 298 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in Grabove, in rebel-held east Ukraine, on July 19, 2014 © AFP
BERLIN – Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency has concluded that pro-Russian rebels are to blame for the downing of Malaysia Airline MH17 in Ukraine in July, Der Spiegel weekly reported on Sunday, the first European agency to say so.
The crash over pro-Russian rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine on July 17 killed all 298 passengers and crew and led to a further deterioration of ties between the West and Moscow, who are in dispute over Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis.
Gerhard Schindler, president of the BND, told a secret parliamentary committee on security affairs earlier this month that separatists had used a Russian Buk missile defence system from a Ukrainian base to fire a rocket that exploded directly next to the Malyasia Air plane, Der Spiegel reported.
“It was pro-Russian separatists,” the magazine quoted him as saying.
The BND concluded the rebels were to blame after a detailed analysis based on satellite and other photos, Der Spiegel said. Noone at the BND was immediately available to comment.
Kiev blames the incident on the rebels and accused Moscow of arming them, but the rebels and Moscow deny the accusations.
European governments have so far refrained from openly pointing the finger, but shortly after the crash U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said there was strong evidence that Moscow-backed separatists had downed the plane.
The Dutch government, which has two investigations underway into the downing of the airliner, has yet to say who was responsible. Two thirds of the passengers were Dutch.
A preliminary report by the Dutch Safety Board last month said the airliner crashed due to a “large number of high-energy objects” from outside the aircraft. It drew no conclusions as to where they came from.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko delivers a speech as he visits the Khortytsia Island near the Dnieper River to meet with servicemen, who take part in the military conflict in eastern regions of the country, while marking the Day of Ukraine’s Defenders in Zaporizhzhia region, Oct. 14, 2014.
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Mikhail Palinchak/Handout via Reuters.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has signed a law granting three-year limited self-rule status to certain territories in the separatist-minded Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
According to a statement posted Thursday on the presidential website, the law was signed to create the “conditions for the prompt normalization of the situation, restoration of legal order, constitutional rights and freedoms of citizens.”
Ukrainian legislation will still be applicable in these territories “with consideration of peculiarities,” the statement said. People’s militias will be created to maintain order on the ground, while local government bodies will govern these territories after local elections scheduled for Dec. 7, the statement added.
After the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych in March, rebels in the east of Ukraine refused to acknowledge Kiev’s pro-Western government and established self-proclaimed republics in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
In accordance with the law signed Thursday, insurgents who participated in the eastern conflict against Ukrainian army forces will be immune to criminal prosecution.
Alexander Zakharchenko, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, told state-run news agency RIA Novosti on Friday that its government would not recognize the new law, as it was signed by a foreign state.
“Kiev is still under illusion that it governs us, but in reality this is not the case,” he said.
In addition, Zakharchenko said Donetsk’s insurgents, who lost ground following a Ukrainian army offensive in July, were planning to return to the rest of the Donetsk region, which is “currently occupied” by Ukraine.
(L to R) France’s President Francois Hollande, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sit during a meeting on the sidelines of a Europe-Asia summit (ASEM) in Milan, Oct. 17, 2014.
Talks between Russia, Ukraine and European governments on Friday were “full of misunderstandings and disagreements,” the Kremlin said, undercutting more upbeat messages from leaders hoping for a breakthrough in the Ukraine crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shook hands with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko at the start of a meeting with European leaders aimed at patching up a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and resolving a dispute over gas supplies.
The various leaders emerged an hour later telling reporters some progress had been made and promising further talks.
“It was good, it was positive,” a smiling Putin told reporters after the meeting, held on the margins of a summit of Asian and European leaders in Milan.
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later poured cold water on hopes of any breakthrough, saying “certain participants” had taken an “absolutely biased, non-flexible, non-diplomatic” approach to Ukraine.
“The talks are indeed difficult, full of misunderstandings, disagreements, but they are nevertheless ongoing, the exchange of opinion is in progress,” he said.
A similar message emerged overnight after Putin met German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a formerly cordial relationship that has come under heavy strain from Moscow’s support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.
The meeting was reported by both sides to have made little progress, with the Kremlin saying “serious differences” remained in their analysis of the crisis.
Putin, Poroshenko, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were due meet later in the day, their aides said.
The West has imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea and its support for east Ukraine’s separatists.
The European leaders urged Russia to do more to end constant, deadly violations of a cease-fire that was agreed by Putin and Poroshenko last month in Minsk, saying Russia needed to fulfil its commitments.
Officials said local elections and the issue of using unmanned drone aircraft for surveillance of the borders between Russia and Ukraine were particular sticky points in the discussions, with Russia pushing to have its drones taking part alongside those offered by France and Germany.
The crisis in relations with Kiev has led Russia to cut gas supplies to Ukraine because of unpaid bills. The European Union fears this could threaten disruptions in the gas flow to the rest of the continent this winter, and is working hard to broker a deal.
Russia is Europe’s biggest gas supplier, accounting for around a third of demand, and the European Union gets about half of the Russian gas it uses via Ukraine.
The stand-off over pricing is the third in a decade between Moscow and Kiev, though this time tensions are higher because of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters that Russia, Ukraine and EU officials would meet in Brussels to try to resolve the gas row.
Taking the lead in the diplomacy, Merkel saw Poroshenko on Thursday evening and then met Putin until well after midnight — an encounter that was significantly delayed because the Russian president arrived in Milan much later than expected.
Speaking off the record, a German source said Putin had not been in a “too constructive mood.”
Putin had warned on Thursday that Russia would reduce gas supplies to Europe if Ukraine took gas from the transit pipeline to cover its own needs, although he added that he was “hopeful” it would not come to that.
More than 3,600 people have died in eastern Ukraine since fighting broke out in mid-April when armed separatists declared they were setting up their own state.
Although Putin announced this week that Russian troops near the border with Ukraine would be pulled back, Western officials want to see clear evidence that Moscow is acting on this.
“Vladimir Putin said very clearly he doesn’t want a frozen conflict and doesn’t want a divided Ukraine. But if that’s the case, then Russia now needs to take the actions to put in place all that has been agreed,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“If those things don’t happen, then clearly the European Union, Britain included, must keep in place the sanctions and the pressure so we don’t have this sort of conflict in our continent.”
Ukrainian Femen protesters prepare to pour buckets of ‘blood’ on themselves before Vladimir Putin’s arrival in Milan. Photograph: Luca Bruno/AP
Lizzy Davies in Milan,
The Ukrainian feminist protest group Femen has staged a two-woman demonstration against Vladimir Putin in Milan, where he is expected to attend a summit of world leaders on Thursday.
The protesters stood in front of Milan’s cathedral and poured buckets of red wine, which they said represented the blood of Ukrainian people, over their bare chests.
The message “Stop ignoring Ukrainian bloodshed” was written on one woman’s torso, while the other made direct reference to the two-day summit of more than 50 European and Asian leaders: “ASEM allies of Putin,” read the message on Femen leader Inna Shevchenko’s chest.
“We believe that welcoming a killer, a person who is killing a whole nation right now – and this Ukrainian blood is right here, is on us – and shaking his hand, is ignoring the big torture, the big killing and the war in Ukraine that is started and supported by Putin,” she told AFPTV.
Although its main purpose is economic, the ASEM summit looks set to be dominated by the security situation in eastern Ukraine, where a fragile ceasefire struck last month has been repeatedly violated. An ongoing dispute over Russian gas supplies to Ukraine is becoming increasingly urgent as winter approaches.
Putin and the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, are scheduled to meet at a breakfast on Friday morning. The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, will also host David Cameron, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the EU’s top officials.
It is possible that Putin and Poroshenko may also meet face-to-face in a separate bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the summit. Poroshenko has been quoted as saying the whole world had “high expectations” of his talks with Putin.
The funeral of 54 unidentified Ukrainian fighters in Zaporizhzhia Oblast on Oct. 1. Some of them were killed in the late August massacre of Ilovaisk in Donetsk Oblast. © UNIAN
Oksana Grytsenko reporting,
Nearly two months after the Aug. 29 Massacre of Ilovaisk, which many think forced Ukraine to accept a bad peace deal in September, the number of victims is still being counted.
More than 107 soldiers were killed there, Defense Minister Valery Heletey said in an interview last month. But Yaroslav Zhylkin, head of a group that tracks war casualties, said volunteers who recently returned from Donetsk Oblast’s Ilovaisk found more than 150 dead bodies, many of which were not officially accounted for. He thinks they left behind at least as many corpses.
“My feeling is that there is at least the same number remaining there,” he told the Kyiv Post.
Zhylkin, whose team received a permit from Kremlin-backed insurgents to pick up the Ukrainian dead, said searchers found most of the corpses near the town of Starobeshevo, where a column of Ukrainian troops was fired on by the Russian army in violation of agreements that they would be allowed to leave their encirclement.
Ilovaisk, a town of 16,000 people, was liberated on Aug. 19 by Ukrainian fighters of the Donbas, Dnipro, Azov and Shakhtarsk volunteer battalions. The location was considered to be a strategic point for further attack on separatist-controlled Donetsk, but instead it turned into the deadly trap.
While most of Ukraine’s volunteer battalions were formed as special police units, taking a support role to the army, they became the main combat force in Illovaisk and were supported by the 51th and 92nd army brigades.
A numbers of soldiers were killed during unsuccessful attempts to capture the city on Aug. 9, Aug. 13, and Aug. 14. But the deadliest clashes between the Ukrainian troops and the Russian army happened inside of Ilovaisk, which the Ukrainian side was trying to keep and near Starobeshevo, where the Ukrainian column was shelled during retreat.
“That was a real meat grinder,” said Taras Samchuk, 28, a soldier of the 51th brigade, who managed to survive the ambush thanks to the driver of his armored vehicle who drove into the cornfield to hide. The driver saved 15 men that way. Samchuk recalled the panic that caused fleeing Ukrainians to crash into each other’s vehicles.
Samchuk said that hundreds of soldiers were either killed or taken hostage after the unexpected Russian attack. Most survivors had various wounds, including broken legs, teeth, noses and shrapnel in their bodies.
On Aug. 30, some eight kilometers from Starobesheve, the Kyiv Post saw about a dozen emergency vehicles carrying the dead and wounded from the fight. The dirty soldiers had exhausted and empty eyes..
Zhylkin said that Ilovaisk is still desperate and ruined. “The houses are damaged by shells. There are many armored vehicles totally burned down. There are parts of the forest where the trees have no branches left after the massive shelling,” Zhylkin said. “Sometimes we found up to eight bodies lying for weeks after people died. I don’t know whether we will be able to find more of them later because dogs and foxes complicate our work.”
Soon after the scope of the Ilovaisk tragedy became knows, finger-pointing began.
Samchuk said the soldiers of his 51th brigade were accused of abandoning their duty after survivors traveled to their native city of Lutsk in western Ukraine. On Sept. 22, President Petro Poroshenko announced that the 51th brigade will be dissolved, and a new brigade will be formed instead, with new commandment.
On Sept. 4, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal probe over the massive losses in Ilovaisk.
Earlier this month Anatoliy Matios, the chief military prosecutor, blamed the volunteer Prykarpattia Battalion of deliberately leaving their service and said this move “was the prime cause of domino effect in Ilovaisk zone.”
But lawmaker Andriy Senchenko, who heads a special parliament commission for investigating the Ilovaisk tragedy, said that the main responsibility lies with the country’s top commanders.
“It was a series of wrong actions or lack of actions, when they were needed,” Senchenko told the Kyiv Post by phone. “This is lack of coordination, lack of proper planning, ignoring intelligence.”
Senchenko said that up to 1,000 soldiers were killed in August around Ilovaisk or died later of wounds. His count includes earlier fights in August, when the Russian forces pushed the Ukrainian troops to the border, as well as other fights.
Many of bodies that had been collected in that area have not been identified, and were buried in anonymous mass graves in Zaporizhzhia, Dnipripetrovsk and Kharkiv Oblasts, said Zhylkin, the man who recovers bodies.
On Oct. 14 Poroshenko dismissed Heletey as defense minister. Senchenko said this dismissal was provoked by Ilovaisk events, but said that it’s not enough of a punishment. Those guilty should bear criminal responsibility for soldiers’ deaths, he said.
“We didn’t get the resignation of the chief of general staff (Viktor Muzhenko), but his responsibility for what happened and for the deaths is more than Heletey’s,” he said.
(Kyiv Post staff writer Oksana Grytsenko can be reached at email@example.com. Kyiv Post+ offers special coverage of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the aftermath of the EuroMaidan Revolution).