Malaysia Airlines flight 17

Who are the Ukrainian rebel leaders accused over downing of flight MH17?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 11:02pm

As the world searches for answers over the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, suspicion has fallen on the leaders of the pro-Russia rebels, who shot down three Ukrainian government planes last week.

Attention has centred on rebel leaders who reportedly discussed the downing of a plane shortly after MH17 was destroyed: Igor Strelkov, an alleged Russian intelligence agent leading the forces of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, and Igor Bezler, a notorious loose cannon who rules the town of Horlivka with an iron fist. A third suspect is Nikolai Kozitsyn, commander of a group of Cossacks.

Shortly after the Boeing 777 went down, a Russian social networking page that had been uploading messages from Strelkov published a post saying rebels had shot down a plane outside Torez, near the location of the wreckage of MH17.

They were carrying spies … They shouldn’t be flying. There is a war going on

Strelkov is an avid battle re-enactor from Moscow and a former colonel in Russia's security service who recently admitted he was asked to lead the rebellion in eastern Ukraine, although he wouldn't say by whom. He fought as a volunteer in Bosnia and Transnistria, a Russian-backed breakaway republic in Moldova, and was seen advising separatist leaders in Crimea before it was annexed by Russia.

On Friday, Ukrainian authorities released recordings of what they said were phone conversations between rebel leaders. In the first, a voice claimed to be Bezler's says a rebel group had shot down a plane and was investigating the crash site. In the second, a rebel commander reports that Cossacks shot down what was later discovered to be a "100 per cent civilian aircraft" and that documents of an Indonesian student had been found.

A final conversation allegedly records a rebel reporting to Kozitsyn that "the plane shot down in the area of Snezhnoe-Torez ... is a civilian one". "That means they were carrying spies," the man alleged to be Kozitsyn responds. "They shouldn't be flying. There is a war going on."

Bezler, nicknamed Bes [Demon] and renowned for his ruthlessness, first emerged after pro-Russia protesters stormed the police station in Horlivka, during which he was seen in a video identifying himself as a "colonel in the Russian army". He is also liable to fight with the leadership of the Donetsk People's Republic. In June, Bezler's men seized the police headquarters in Donetsk, sparking a shoot-out with local rebel forces.

Kozitsyn was born in the Donetsk region and took part in military actions in the Russian-backed separatist republics of Transnistria and Abkhazia, according to a Russian nationalist website.