EXCLUSIVE: Ukrainian rebel chief Sergei Kavtaradze, in a special interview, says he has snipers and gunmen guarding the zone where Malaysia Airlines MH17 was brought down but the world is not buying his story. A five-nation security force is being planned to secure the zone and keep looters out. Kavtaradze says they need to get his side’s permission first, PATRICK LEE brings us this exclusive.
DONETSK: We were at the top floor of the rebel headquarters building, when the shelling began. Once, twice, and a couple more far off in the distance.
We rushed to the window, looking for signs of fighting that had been going on in the region.
Maybe the Ukrainians were firing artillery shells or their screaming Grad rockets into yet another part of the city.
Black smoke rose some kilometres in the distance, but it was too far to make out what the target was.
Then, the rebels walked into the room. Sergei Kavtaradze, a security council member of the Donetsk People’s Republic strolled in, clutching what looked like an AK74. A surly-looking guard followed.
“Sorry, sorry,” he said, apologising for his lateness. We – a few other reporters and I – had been waiting to try to speak to him, or anyone who would be able to take our questions.
For one, the Australians and the Dutch had been pushing for a police force to enter the crash site, and answers were needed.
“Sit, sit,” Kavtaradze said, pointing to chairs about the conference table in the very room that had been used days earlier by DPR Prime Minister Alexander Borodai to hand MH17’s black boxes over to Malaysia.
He set his gun down on a chair a few steps away, before sitting on the table with us. Carefully, he pulled out a box of Dunhill Blues with a Russian label. He lined the cigarettes up on the table, took one and lit it. Then, he offered some to us.
Though he appeared to be in a rush, he looked as if he had all the time in the world and seemed comfortable with the media.
The bespectacled man did not look like someone leading an army, but one could figure that he could be the brains behind any operation.
We started by asking him about the crash site, and how secure it was. Anyone could come to the wreckage and steal belongings. After all, credit cards landing in the area had been used, and people spoke of calling their loved ones’ handphones, only to get Eastern European-sounding voices on the other side.
He replied in Russian, though he used a smattering of English that jumbled up as we both tried to understand each other.
“We have secret checkpoints under the trees,” he said.
“We have snipers. These zones are secure,” he said.
Then we asked him what would happen if people looted the crash site. Would the snipers shoot?
“Miners,” Kavtaradze said, adding that if the rebels saw anyone trespassing here, they would call people working in the nearby coal mines to arrest them.
Throughout the interview, he spoke time and time again about the Ukrainian government, saying it was their fault that the investigations into the downing of the plane were faltering.
Asked about an international police force that is being planned to secure the site, he said he had not heard the news, which had broken just hours earlier.
“We need to decide this question at the world community level. We need to speak with the world experts and the OSCE (Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe).”
He seemed open to the idea, although he added that something could happen only if both Australia and the Netherlands spoke officially to the rebels.
“Because it is the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic, if both sides agree ... they’ll (need to) get some contract from all sides,” he said.
We were about to ask about the dealing with Malaysia when we were interrupted, 20 minutes into the interview. A guard had walked in, speaking hastily in Russian.
“I have to go,” he said, taking his gun and heading for the exit. “Borodai ... Sorry, goodbye,” he said, walking out.
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