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TOREZ, Ukraine — Its white metal shutters are down and business is slow, but this nondescript home improvement store in a decaying rebel-controlled east Ukrainian industrial town could be key to establishing who downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Several locals near the StroiDom store in Torez, about 10 miles from where the plane crashed, said Tuesday that they had seen what appeared to be a missile launcher driving through their town a few hours before the plane was shot down last Thursday. Their story appears to corroborate Ukrainian claims that the separatist rebels had a sophisticated missile launcher and drove it to the site that Ukrainian and U.S. intelligence say was used to fire on the Boeing 777 jet, killing all 298 on board.
BuzzFeed visited the site where a photo was taken purportedly showing the launcher, which Ukraine says was a Buk SA-11 surface-to-air complex, driving through Torez around lunchtime on the day of the attack. The photo purportedly shows it being driven past the filling area at a gas station on the town’s main street across from the hardware store. The road was ridden with tire treads from heavy equipment.
Several locals said that the launcher had driven down Gagarina Street, one of the town’s main thoroughfares, toward the town of Snizhne, near where Ukraine and the U.S. say the missile was fired. Though convoys of heavy equipment have become a regular sight in Torez since the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and the government in Kiev started in April, workers in one store said that the one that passed through last Thursday was much louder than ones they had seen before.
The locals all asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal from the rebels, who control the town. Many of the residents who spoke to BuzzFeed denied knowing anything about the launcher or claimed that it had never passed through the town.
Moscow and the rebels both deny that the separatists ever possessed a Buk, though the rebels crowed about capturing one on Twitter and in Russian state media in late June. On Monday, Russian generals released data that they said showed Ukraine could have either shot the plane down from its own surface-to-air missiles in the area or from a fighter jet that trailed the plane. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko dismissed the accusations.
While the locals’ accounts do not prove that the rebels fired the missile, they do undermine their denials of ever owning such a system. The entire area around Torez is rebel-controlled, and there are rebel checkpoints on all the entrances to town.
BuzzFeed also visited the location where this photo, uploaded to Twitter on Thursday, was taken, apparently capturing the trail of smoke from the rocket in a field south of Snizhne.
The photo was presumably taken from a church or nearby bus stop on a hill overlooking the field in the suburb of Pervomaiske. The area where the smoke is coming from has been the center of heavy fighting in recent days. Constant shelling could be heard in the distance on Tuesday afternoon, and a dark plume of smoke wafted over the horizon. Rebels manning checkpoints on the outskirts of Snizhne said they had orders not to let any journalists into the town.
The vantage point of the photo also corresponds with recordings Ukraine posted a day after the attack of what it said were rebels discussing moving the rocket. “You get there and Pervomaiske’s round there, look on the map,” says a man on the recording identified as Sergei Petrovsky, a rebel intelligence officer nicknamed “Gloomy.”
“Get set up in that area somewhere, get the men you have left over there,” continues the man identified as Petrovsky. “Your job is backup, plus guarding the thing you’re going to take over there.”