Filip Warwick and Doug Stanglin
HRABOVE, Ukraine — Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists agreed Saturday to set up a security zone around the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines jet to allow the orderly removal of the bodies of the 298 people killed in the shootdown of MH17 over eastern Ukraine two days ago.
The Malaysian airliner — en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 183 passengers and 15 crew members — crashed into rebel-held territory on Thursday after being hit by what U.S. officials say was a SA-11 surface-to-air missile. There were no survivors.
Ukrainian Security Service head Valentyn Nalyvaychenko said in televised remarks Saturday that trilateral talks, involving Russia, had agreed on a 7-square-mile security zone “so that Ukraine could fulfill the most important thing — identify the bodies (and) hand them over to relatives,” Ukrinform reports.
The announcement of an agreement followed charges by Ukraine that local militia in the restive eastern Ukraine region near the Russian border had removed at least 38 bodies from the crash site near the village of Hrabove.
On a dirt road near the site Saturday morning, separatist officials from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic’s ministry of internal affairs began moving bodies in what appeared to be an unorganized and ad hoc operation.
At one point, about 15 bodies had been laid out on the rural road.
“Experts are removing the bodies,” a separatist soldier who identified himself as Commander Ugriumny and seemed to be in charge told reporters. “Where we will move them, we will wait and see.”
Until the soldiers arrived in a 10-vehicle caravan, the golden fields in this remote region near the Russian border were virtually empty, except for the decomposing bodies, some still strapped to their airline seats, and wide swaths of plane wreckage. There were no emergency services vehicles, no separatist soldiers.
The militiamen, who began setting up a perimeter, cordoning off the area and putting up tents, scoffed at charges by the Kiev government that bodies were being removed from the scene.
“No one stole any bodies,” said Commander Ugriumny. “Or have taken them anywhere.”
Malaysia Minister of Transport Liow Tiong Lai had said earlier Saturday that his country was “deeply concerned” about whether or not the crash site is being properly secured.
Malaysia “calls for those responsible to be found, and to face the full force of justice without delay,” Liow said.
An international delegation visited the crash site Friday evening but was only allowed a superficial visit to see one small portion.
Among the passengers from 11 countries were 80 children, an acclaimed AIDS researcher from Amsterdam, a nun and teacher from Sydney, a Dutch senator, a Malaysian actress and a World Health Organization spokesman.
One American with dual Dutch citizenship was among the dead.
Ukraine has accused Russia of helping rebels destroy evidence at the crash site. Russia and separatist groups have denied being responsible for the shootdown.