A leader of pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine has told the BBC that his forces do not possess the Buk missile thought to have been used to to bring down Malaysia airlines flight MH17.
Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), said that evidence that showed otherwise was “fake”.
All 298 people on the plane died when it crashed in east Ukraine last week.
Ukrainian pro-Russian rebels have been widely accused of shooting it down.
The Netherlands, where most of the victims were from, received the first bodies in a ceremony on Wednesday.
A second plane carrying more bodies is expected to arrive from Ukraine on Thursday.
Mr Borodai rejected accusations that his men had neglected crash victims’ bodies.
He also categorically denied the presence of the Russian-made SA-11 Buk missile system in the crash area. Western intelligence officials say this was the weapon used to shot down the aircraft.
“No, we didn’t get a Buk. There were no Buks in the area” he told the BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse.
He initially denied knowledge of photographs allegedly showing the presence of a Buk launcher in the nearby town of Snezhoe, before saying that such photographs were fake.
The rebels have been criticised for not taking enough care of the remains and the evidence at the crash site. But Mr Borodai said that international observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had told them to leave the bodies to be collected by experts.
“So we wait a day. We wait a second day. A third day. Come on! Not a single expert. Well, to leave the bodies there any longer, in 30 degree heat, it’s absurd. It’s simply inhuman. It’s a scene from a horror movie,” he said.
OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw denied they told rebels not to move the bodies. He told the BBC: “It is not consistent with our mandate to tell people what to do. We’re here to monitor, observe and report.”
Two military planes – one Dutch and the other Australian – carrying the first 40 coffins landed at Eindhoven air base on Wednesday afternoon. They were met by members of the Dutch royal family, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and hundreds of victims’ relatives.
Churches around the Netherlands rang their bells for five minutes before the planes landed, and flags of all the nations affected by the disaster have been flying at half mast. There was also a minute’s silence.
The coffins were slowly loaded into a fleet of waiting hearses which then moved off in motorcades.
The bodies have been taken to the Korporaal van Oudheusden barracks south of the city of Hilversum for identification, a process that could take months.
Two more planes carrying victims are due to arrive in Eindhoven on Thursday.
There has been mounting international anger at the delays in recovering the bodies.
In a separate development, the Dutch air safety board said the cockpit voice recorder from flight MH17 had been successfully downloaded and contained “valid data from the flight”.
The “black box” flight-data recorders are being examined at the headquarters of the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch in Farnborough.
Earlier in Washington, intelligence officials presented evidence they had gathered on the involvement of the rebels.
“It’s a solid case that it’s an SA-11 [missile] that was fired from eastern Ukraine under conditions the Russians helped create,” said the officials, who requested that their names not be reported.
They said the “most plausible explanation” was that rebels mistook the airliner for another aircraft.
The evidence they presented included:
- Satellite images of a facility allegedly used to train rebels near the Russian city of Rostov, which were later tweeted by Geoffrey Pyatt, US ambassador to Ukraine
- Other images purportedly showing a surface-to-air missile launcher in the area
- Analysis of voice recordings of pro-Russian rebels apparently admitting bringing the airliner down
- Photos and messages from social-media sites pointing to rebel involvement
- BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera said some observers suggested the US statement constituted a subtle backing off from more assertive claims over the weekend in which they said they could not rule out a direct Russian role. American diplomats said this was not the case.Meanwhile, fighting between Ukrainian government forces and rebels around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk on Wednesday reportedly left 16 people dead.
A statement from overall military commander Igor Strelkov posted on a rebel website said he had withdrawn his fighters from the outskirts of Donetsk.
He said they had pulled back and were prepared to defend their positions.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine erupted in April and is believed to have claimed more than 1,000 lives.