Flight 17 bodies released
Rebels bow to pressure; forensic teams arrive at site
HRABOVE, Ukraine – Bowing to international pressure, pro-Moscow separatists released a train packed with bodies and handed over the black boxes from the downed Malaysia Airlines plane, four days after it plunged into rebel-held eastern Ukraine.
With body parts decaying in sweltering heat and signs that evidence at the crash site was mishandled, anger in Western capitals has mounted at the rebels and their allies in Moscow. Their reluctant cooperation will soothe mourning families and help investigators, but may do little to reconcile the East-West powers struggling over Ukraine’s future.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Monday it saw no evidence a missile was fired and denied involvement in the downing of Flight 17 – and suggested the Ukrainian military was at fault. President Vladimir Putin spoke out but showed no sign of abandoning the separatists as fighting flared anew near the site of the crash.
President Barack Obama accused the rebels of tampering with evidence and insulting victims’ families, warning of new sanctions. Europeans will consider their own sanctions today.
The bodies of the 298 victims, most from the Netherlands, have become a part of the conflict in Ukraine because they could hold evidence of what brought the plane down July 17 as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
International forensics experts finally gained access to the crash site Monday.
The team stumbled across remains that had not yet been removed and inspected the perished passengers’ luggage.
In Torez, a rebel-held town 9 miles from the crash site, inspectors bowed heads and clasped hands before climbing aboard refrigerated train cars holding collected bodies. Armed rebels surrounded them, while commuters boarded other trains nearby.
The smell of decay was overwhelming. Workers wore masks, while passers-by twisted their faces in horror at the odor. Temperatures hit 84 degrees, and a train engineer told the AP that a power outage had hit the refrigeration system temporarily overnight.
Ukrainian authorities said the total number of bodies recovered was 282.
Dutch investigators demanded the separatists transfer the bodies immediately, and the rebels complied after several hours.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the train was heading for the rebel-held city of Donetsk, 30 miles west of the crash site, and then on to Kharkiv, site of a crisis center controlled by the Ukrainian government. He said Ukrainian authorities have agreed to let the bodies be transferred from there to the Netherlands for identification, but gave no time frame.
Early today, the rebels handed over both black boxes from Flight 17 to Malaysian investigators in Donetsk. A rebel leader, Alexander Borodai, said the orange-colored flight recorders were handed over to Malaysian officials on condition they would be delivered to experts at the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Earlier Monday, a team of international observers at the sprawling crash site described strange behavior by workers.
“When we were leaving, we observed workers there hacking into the fuselage with gas-powered equipment,” OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw told reporters in Donetsk.
He said there was no security perimeter Monday at one of the bigger debris fields, and monitors saw that one of the larger pieces of the plane “had somewhat been split or moved apart.”
On Sunday, the U.S. said there was “powerful” evidence that the rebels had shot down the plane with a Russian surface-to-air missile, including video of a rocket launcher, one surface-to-air missile missing, being driven away from the likely launch site; imagery showing the firing; phone calls claiming credit for the missile strike and phone recordings said to reveal a cover-up at the crash site.
The Russian Defense Ministry offered its own evidence Monday, showing photos it said proved that Ukrainian surface-to-air systems were operating in the area before the crash – nine times alone the day the plane was brought down.
Russian officials also said they had evidence a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet had flown “between 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles)” from the Malaysia Airlines jet.
At the U.N., the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution demanding international access to the crash site and an end to military activities around the area, following intense pressure on a reluctant Russia to support the measure.
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