Kiev - Laughing rebels filmed the Malaysia Airlines plane as it crashed, gleefully bragging “That was a blast - look at the smoke!” while a fireball rose from the debris.
One of the voices is believed to be militia commander Igor Strelkov, who then penned a triumphant war cry on Twitter, saying: “We warned you - do not fly in ‘our sky’.”
A sickening cellphone video posted online shows a pall of black smoke billowing over the crash site as three rebels provide an excited commentary. The footage - which was apparently filmed by the shooters themselves - charts the terrible final moments of the doomed airliner.
Their camera does not zoom in enough to see the plummeting plane in the sky, but the rebels’ voices can be heard talking happily of “black spots - these are the parts flying”, suggesting it fell to earth in several pieces.
A voice believed to be that of Strelkov - dubbed “Igor the Terrible” - announces: “The plane was hit!”
He adds: “Look at those black spots, these are the parts flying... it was a blast… look, look, black smoke!”
Another rebel, possibly referring to the missile system, laughs and says: “It was worth bringing this thing, wasn’t it?” None of the rebels can be seen in their horrific film, but it appears to be genuine because at the time only they seemed to be aware of what was happening.
Shortly after the passenger plane was downed, Strelkov - seen smirking in photos - tweeted a boastful message claiming responsibility.
At the time, he apparently believed he had shot down an Antonov-26 military plane of the Ukrainian Air Force, saying it landed near a mine named Progress.
His chilling message read: “In the area Torez we just hit down An-26, it’s lying somewhere in the mine ‘Progress’.
“We warned you - do not fly in ‘our sky’. And here is the video confirmation of the ‘bird dropping’.
“Bird fell near the mine, the residential sector was not disturbed. Civilians are not injured.”
Later as the horror became clear, the tweet was deleted.
Far from civilians being unharmed, accounts began to emerge of bodies falling out of the stricken plane over the village of Rassypnaya. Residents said charred and naked bodies lay in the streets.
Strelkov, who minutes earlier had been boasting about his “military success”, seems to have gone to ground once he realised his catastrophic mistake. A man of mystery with at least three names, Strelkov is believed by Ukraine to be a serving colonel in the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Russian army - a charge firmly denied by Moscow.
He commands pro-Russian forces now in control of Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine, but his enemies suspect he is a direct agent of the Kremlin.
The secret service in Kiev claims his real identity is Igor Girkin.
He has an ex-wife and children still living in Moscow, and his Russian passport number and address in Moscow have been published by media in Ukraine.
Neighbours in the Moscow suburb where he lives know him as Igor Girkin, but his men call him Igor Strelok - meaning “Igor The Shooter”.
Whoever Strelkov is, his name crops up time and again in accounts of Russia’s troublespots.
He was in and out of Chechnya between 1999 and 2005 as an agent of the Federal Security Service - the former KGB - according to some reports.
And when Russian president Vladimir Putin decided to annex Crimea earlier this year, Strelkov was stirring up hatred on the Russian president’s behalf, Kiev claims.
Ukrainian intelligence says he crossed the Ukrainian border in Simferopol on February 26, when the Crimean parliament was seized.
He was personally blamed for the abduction of several peacekeeping observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Strelkov accused the observers of being “professionally trained spies” carrying “special devices” and claimed Russia would decide their fate.
In the Russian right-wing media, Strelkov is regarded as a hero figure, one prepared to sacrifice his life to the cause of the Russian state and its future. One profile called him “a Russian civil war romantic”.
Others regard him as an enemy, a terrorist and a criminal responsible for several high-profile killings.
In April, the EU named him on its list of sanctioned Russians who were posing threats to Ukraine’s independence.
Eccentric Strelkov, who is obsessed by military history, has been known to dress up in the uniforms of civil war generals, as a Cossack and even in a suit of armour. - Daily Mail