EXPOSED: PUTIN’S SECRET ARMY HQ

IAN GALLAGHER
MAIL ON SUNDAY (London) | July 27, 2014

On a corner of a street in Snizhne in eastern Ukraine, there is a gap where a block of flats used to be. In the wreckage of this destroyed four-storey building lies the chilling motive behind the mass murder of 298 innocent civilians – including ten Britons – on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

For Snizhne has become the main base for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s clandestine war on Ukraine, and after getting unprecedented access to this town controlled by pro-Russian separatists, The Mail on Sunday can reveal that the most likely reason missiles were being aimed at the aircraft was revenge – pure and simple.

Two days before the airliner was shot down near this town, Snizhne – part of the breakaway so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) which has declared allegiance to Russia – was bombed by Ukrainian air force jets, which destroyed the apartment block on Lenin Street, killing five women and four men and critically injuring a young boy.

Peshehonov Sergey, a newspaper editor in the town who helped pull bodies from the rubble, said: There is nothing but hatred towards the people who caused this tragedy.

You have to understand that when we got the little boy out of the building, the lower part of his body was totally crushed by rubble. The boys [rebels] were very angry.’

It is thought the sortie had been targeting a separatist military base just 100 yards away – which has become the headquarters of Putin’s covert war.

In the words of one local, the bombing attack spread panic’. A day later, others are said to have died in attacks on nearby villages. And this seems to have set in train the chilling sequence of events which led a BUK anti-aircraft missile launcher to be driven across the Russia-Ukraine border on July 17, and moved around Donetsk region to a field outside Snizhne, where it launched the weapon that blew the Boeing 777 out of the sky.

Although it is widely accepted that the pro-Russian rebels mistook the airliner for a Ukrainian military plane, tensions in the town were high, and locals callously explained the launch as self-defence’.

I think taking down the Boeing plane might be the reaction to what’s happening in Snizhne and around our city,’ said Mr Sergey said.

The boys are just doing their job. The planes bring death into our city so they could have just thought that it [Flight MH17] was another plane that was about to bomb Snizhne. It’s pure self-defence.’

And as an international team of investigators were finally allowed access to the crash site yesterday, Putin and his henchmen showed no sign of scaling down their aggression.

New photographs and video images of unguided Grad rocket launchers being moved across the border emerged yesterday, amid reports that a huge column of Russian military vehicles was massing a few miles behind the border.

The Mail on Sunday was the first British newspaper to be allowed to visit the centre of Snizhne, and access was only granted because we asked about the Ukrainian bombing, rather than the downing of MH17.

To reach the town, we negotiated six checkpoints on the road from the regional capital, Donetsk. At the last, on the edge of the town, a group of militants swaggered back and forth, armed with assault rifles.

We can’t let you through, there is fighting,’ said one, sunglasses resting on his head. As he spoke, a family in a car packed with belongings crossed in the opposite direction. On the windscreen was a hastily scrawled poster with the word Kids’ in Russian, presumably, in case anyone mistook them for combatants.

Eventually, after we sent a message to the town’s military commander explaining that we wanted to report on the attack by the Ukrainians, the guards let us through.

All smiles now where once they’d been sullen, one said: Tell the truth or we will come and find you.’ With that he made a throat-slitting gesture and returned to his colleagues.

Certainly few locals would have been particularly surprised to see the BUK mobile rocket launcher parked outside a supermarket on the afternoon of July 17, just hours before Flight MH17 was shot down.

Residents said they had grown accustomed to the rumble of tanks and armoured personnel carriers moving around their town, with armed militiamen roaming the streets and setting up positions on the outskirts, in anticipation of a Ukrainian attack.

They said that Russian military hardware had been sneaked across the border into the Donetsk region under the cover of darkness in recent weeks. Accompanied by a young man in fatigues on an old Russian motorbike, we drove into the centre of the town along Lenin Street. There was no fighting, but the air was thick with tension.

There was fighting this morning nearby – the Ukrainians are getting closer,’ said the soldier. But we held them off.’

He leaned on a railing, listlessly smoking a cigarette as we began to interview more locals. They told us that at least half the population has left town because they fear more attacks, their anxiety raised by the downing of Flight MH17.

Yes, many assume we will take the blame and fear a backlash,’ said Viktor, 76, who was on his way to the chemist to try to buy medicine for his sick wife. I go every day but they never have it, supplies are running out generally. There is bread but not much other food. There is no money in the ATMs. Power keeps going off. We have been taken over by the DPR militants.’

Another man said it was common knowledge’ that the rebels received much of their hardware from Russia and claimed his cousin spotted a convoy of tanks coming from the border a month ago. Most of the movement is at night when there is an unofficial curfew,’ he said.

Behind him lay the remains of the destroyed four-storey Soviet-era apartment block, once home to more than 200 people.

Now only 50-year-old Oleg Sapozhnik remains. I am not going to leave and let them win,’ he said.

A Ukrainian plane hit us at 6.30 in the morning – I was still in bed. The building shook and there was this massive explosion and I tried to get out of the door but it was blocked by rubble. So I jumped out of the window.’ He took us room by room through the building. Why did they attack these families? Why?’

After the attack, the militia began to appear more panicked’, according to one local. Others spoke of seeing tanks and military vehicles’ moving through the town later than night. Further down Lenin Street, less than 100 yards from the apartment block, we came across an empty supermarket and, adjacent, the sandbagged entrance to the militia’s HQ, a converted warehouse.

This, several residents tell us, was the Ukrainian plane’s real target.

The rebels looked increasingly nervous after this,’ said one middle-aged woman. And they were angry too, really angry, shuttling all over the place in their military vehicles.’ The following day something else happened to intensify their fury: an attack on the nearby village of Dmitrovka, in which, it is claimed, civilians were killed.

It was at this point that the rebels decided to hit back, and 12 hours later began moving the rocket launcher around Snizhne. It was later photographed in the nearby town of Torez, under a tree near a supermarket. From there it was taken to the outskirts of Snizhne, where it was fired.

On Friday, we requested an interview with the rebel commander in the town. He doesn’t wish to speak to you,’ came the reply from his emissary, a rifle-wielding man in his 20s. You must go back now.’ Back in rebel-held Donetsk, the expected major offensive from the Ukrainian army to retake the city never materialised, though there were reports of blasts in a suburb. Experts said the noise resembled those of Grads.

In all, Ukraine’s bloody insurgency has forced 230,000 people to flee their homes, including 130,000 who have sought refuge in Russia.

Meanwhile, a pro-Putin Russian senator claimed a new Cold War had begun after the White House accused the Russian authorities of being in part to blame for the Malaysian airliner tragedy.

After this statement we can say that a long, tough Cold War has begun,’ said Valeriy Shnyakin, a member of the defence committee of the upper house of parliament.

And the Russian government accused the US of blatant lies’ over the crash. The Foreign Ministry said accusations against Russia were a common practice in Washington when no evidence nor even references to the facts are given as a confirmation, which we could have verified and commented on.

All the White House says is limited to mentioning some "intelligence data" that cannot be presented or, and – this is totally absurd – "information from social media".’

Russia’s protests, though, count for nothing in Snizhne, the town that will be for ever bound to that appalling explosion 33,000ft above them. Not all of us want to live like this, in Putin’s pocket,’ said one elderly resident. For years we were happy – but this has changed everything.’

***

A large column of Russian military vehicles, including multiple rocket launchers known as Grad’ rockets, circled and below, pass through the border town of Krasnodon. The incident was captured on video and later posted on YouTube.

At 4.20pm, as shown in The Mail on Sunday last week, the vapour trail, above, from the BUK is spotted as the missile homes in on its target.

Lunchtime. Some hours before the Malaysian jet passed overhead, a BUK mobile missile launcher, circled, was seen passing through Torez, adjoining Snizhne, loaded with four SA-11 surface-to-air missiles.

Residents of the rebel-held town of Snizhne say the shooting down of MH17 was a revenge attack’ for a bombing of a block of flats, above, two days earlier. Nine civilians were killed when a Ukrainian warplane struck. One resident standing beside a pile of bags said: My home was bombed to bits.’

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