Rebels take full control of plane crash bodies

2014-07-20 16:12

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Torez - Rebels in eastern Ukraine took full control on Sunday of the bodies recovered from downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, and European leaders issued a strong call for Russian President Vladimir Putin to make sure international investigators had full access to the crash site.

The key question of who controlled the collection of evidence at the sprawling crash site in rebel-held territory dominated the day's rapid-fire developments.

International monitors say armed rebels have limited their access to the crash site and Ukrainian officials said armed rebels took the bodies away from their workers by force.

Ukraine and the separatists accuse each other of firing a surface-to-air missile on Thursday at Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur some 10 000m above the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. Both deny shooting down the plane. All those onboard the flight - 283 passengers and 15 crew - were killed.

A wave of international outrage over how the bodies of the plane crash victims were being handled came amid fears that the armed rebels who control the crash site could be tampering with the evidence there.

Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Borodai said the bodies recovered from the crash site would remain in refrigerated train cars in the rebel-held town of Torez, 15km from the crash site, until the arrival of an international aviation delegation.

"The bodies will go nowhere until experts arrive," Borodai said, speaking in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

He also said the plane's black boxes have been recovered and will be handed over to the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Borodai said he was expecting a team of 12 Malaysian experts and that he was disappointed at how long they had taken to arrive. He insisted that rebels had not interfered with the crash investigation, despite reports to the contrary by international monitors and journalists at the crash site.

Disaster crisis centre

Ukrainian government officials, meanwhile, prepared a disaster crisis centre in the government-held city of Kharkiv, expecting to receive the bodies, but those hopes appeared delayed or even dashed on Sunday.

Deputy prime minister Volodymyr Groysman said 192 bodies and eight body parts were loaded onto the railway cars.

The leaders of France, Germany and Britain issued a statement demanding that Putin make sure that pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine give full access to investigators at the Malaysian plane crash site or risk the ire of Europe.

French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed on Sunday to demand that Putin force separatists controlling the site to "finally allow rescuers and investigators to have free and total access to the zone".

A statement from Hollande's office said if Russia fails "to immediately take the needed measures, consequence will be drawn" at an EU foreign ministers meeting on Tuesday.

Ukraine says Russia has been sending sophisticated arms to the rebels, a charge that Moscow denies.

SA-11 surface-to-air missile

The US embassy in Kiev issued a strong statement on Sunday pointing to Russian complicity in arming the rebels, saying it has concluded "that Flight MH17 was likely downed by a SA-11 surface-to-air missile from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine".

It said over the weekend of 12 July to 13 July, "Russia sent a convoy of military equipment with up to 150 vehicles, including tanks armoured personnel carriers artillery, and multiple rockets launchers" to the separatists. The statement also said Russia was training separatist fighters in southwest Russia, including on air defence systems.

The rebels have been strictly limiting the movements of international monitors and journalists at the crash site, which is near the Russian border.

Associated Press journalists saw reeking bodies baking in the summer heat on Saturday, piled into body bags by the side of the road or still sprawled where they landed in the verdant farmland in eastern Ukraine after their plane was shot out of the sky.

By Sunday morning, AP journalists saw no bodies and no armed rebels at the crash site. Emergency workers were searching the sprawling fields only for body parts. Heavy machinery was seen moving plane debris around.

Bodies vaporised

There was no immediate word on the bodies of the 102 other plane victims, but Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesperson for monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said some bodies have likely been incinerated without a trace.

"We're looking at the field where the engines have come down. This was the area which was exposed to the most intense heat. We do not see any bodies here. It appears that some have been vaporised," he told reporters in Kiev on Sunday, speaking via phone from the crash site.

Alexander Pilyushny, an emergency worker combing the crash site for body parts on Sunday, told the AP it took the rebels several hours on Saturday to cart away the bodies. He said he and other workers had no choice but to hand them over.

"They are armed and we are not," Pilyushny said.

Nataliya Khuruzhaya, a duty officer at the train station in Torez, said emergency workers loaded plane victims' bodies on Sunday into five sealed, refrigerated train cars.

Vasily Khoma, deputy of governor of the Kharkiv region where Ukraine has set up a crisis centre to handle the disaster, said the Ukrainian state railway company had provided the refrigerated train cars. Kharkiv is 300km north of the crash site.

He said no information was available on when airplane parts would be brought to the city and that the priority now was on recovering bodies. He said a mobile lab to handle DNA analysis was being delivered from Dnipropetrovsk.

Special call centre

Residents in Kharkov have been inundating a special call centre to offer their services as volunteers. Ten hotels in Kharkiv say they will give free rooms for relatives of the victims.

In a blistering article for the Sunday Times, Cameron called the attack a "direct result of Russia destabilising a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias and training and arming them".

"We must turn this moment of outrage into a moment of action," the British leader wrote.

In a coded rebuke of Merkel and other European leaders who have blocked efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Putin for Russia's actions in Ukraine, Cameron said Europe must now "respond robustly".

"For too long, there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine," Cameron wrote.

In the Netherlands, worshippers at church services across the country prayed on Sunday for the victims of the Ukraine air disaster and their next of kin, as anger built over the rebels' hindering of the investigation.

At the St Vitus church in the central city of Hilversum, Father Julius Dresme summed up the nation's pain.

"It's terrible, and everybody's hearts are bleeding and crying," he said.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, speaking in Kiev, demanded that the culprits be found.

"Once we have the proof, we will not stop until the people are brought to justice," he said.

- AP
Read more on:    ukraine  |  mh17
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