By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN
New York Times
JULY 20, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine — Pro-Russian separatist militiamen have seized custody of the bodies of about 200 victims of the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that was blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile, Ukrainian officials said on Sunday, and rebels continued to limit access to the crash site in eastern Ukraine, blocking the work of experts even as hundreds of untrained local volunteers were picking through the wreckage with sticks.
World leaders have voiced a growing chorus of outrage over the delay in recovering remains of victims, and over the refusal by rebels to cede authority over the disaster site, where Flight 17, a Boeing 777 carrying 298 passengers and crew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, crashed and burned on Thursday afternoon.
Ukrainian emergency responders, working under the watchful eyes of armed rebels, had recovered 196 bodies but were forced to turn them over to the separatists, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said at a briefing in Kiev on Sunday. Mr. Lysenko said officials believed that 38 of those bodies were taken to the morgue in Donetsk, a regional capital that is controlled by separatists.
Michael Bociurkiw, the leader of an observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said that most of the bodies had been placed in three refrigerated railroad cars located in the town of Torez, not far from the crash site. He said that monitors were told that 167 bodies were in the cars, which were locked but under the control of rebels from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, one of the main separatist groups.
Monitors were permitted to make a brief inspection, Mr. Bociurkiw said, speaking by phone from eastern Ukraine, and the body bags all appeared to have tags on them. “We were escorted to the railway station by heavily armed guards of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” he said. “They are the ones in charge of that area.”
The chaos and potential mishandling of evidence at the crash site, near the village of Grabovo, and the uncertainty over when relatives would be able to reclaim the remains of their loved ones, added a frustrating and emotionally wrenching dimension to the looming geopolitical confrontation over Russia’s possible role in the downing of the aircraft.
Senior United States and Ukrainian officials have said they have conclusive evidence that the plane was shot down by a missile from a Russian antiaircraft system, fired from within rebel controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have been battling government forces since April.
Officials said they had photographs and other intelligence showing that three Buk-M1 weapons systems, also known in the west as SA-11 Gadfly, were transported across the border into Russia early Friday morning, within hours after the civilian plane was destroyed. A rocket was missing from the back of one system, officials said.
Despite the increasing evidence of Russia’s involvement and widespread international outrage, neither the United States nor its allies in Europe have announced any response. Russia has denied any role in the incident, and the Kremlin in recent days has stated repeatedly that the Ukrainian military has antiaircraft capabilities that could have destroyed the plane.
The Ukrainian government has said that none of its surface-to-air missiles were in position in the area at the time, and none were fired – a point that was supported by the United States in a written assessment published by the State Department.
“Pro-Russian separatist fighters have demonstrated proficiency with surface-to-air missile systems and have downed more than a dozen aircraft over the past few months, including two large transport aircraft,” the State Department wrote. “At the time that flight MH17 dropped out of contact, we detected a surface-to-air missile (SAM) launch from a separatist-controlled area in southeastern Ukraine. We believe this missile was an SA-11.”
The assessment added, “Ukraine also operates SA-11 systems, but we are confident no Ukrainian air defense systems were within range of the crash. Ukrainian forces have also not fired a single surface-to-air missile during the conflict, despite often complaining about violations of their airspace by Russian military aircraft.”
Mr. Lysenko, the spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, said that heavy fighting between rebels and government forces continued through Saturday night, with eight soldiers killed and 50 wounded in the last 24 hours – a stark reminder that the crash site is in what remains an active combat zone.
Mr. Lysenko said that Russia was continuing to supply tanks, weapons and other heavy equipment to rebels in the east, and he angrily dismissed a reported demand by some rebel leaders that a cease-fire be imposed before full access to the scene is granted.
“If the terrorists wanted to get experts into the area for special investigations, they would have done this immediately after the arrival of such experts,” Mr. Lysenko said. “But the experts arrived, and still there was no cease-fire on the part of terrorists. So their statements on the conditions that they put forward have no grounds, whatsoever.”