By Filip Warwick and Doug Stanglin
Detroit Free Press
July 22, 2014
HRABOVE, UKRAINE — International monitors who gained full access to the Malaysia Airlines crash site in eastern Ukraine said Tuesday the Boeing 77’s cockpit inexplicably had been sawed in half while under the control of Russian-backed separates.
The monitors said large parts of the cockpit — and every part of the fuselage — were carried off. They said they are not sure why such vital pieces of evidence from the downed plane were tampered with.
Flight 17, carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew members, crashed Thursday after being hit by what U.S. officials suspect was a surface-to-air missile launched from an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
U.S. officials said Tuesday that intel suggests separatists shot down the plane, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, and that no link to Russia was found.
The cockpit was found in a section of the crash site that had been immediately cordoned off during the first two days after the plane went down. Witnesses tell USA TODAY that this was also the area where the first bodies were removed.
The cockpit apparently was cut in half with diesel-powered saws.
“The rear part of the aircraft, one of the biggest intact pieces, has definitely been hacked into,” said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the group of international monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
On Monday, President Barack Obama had called on Russia to get separatists to stop hampering the crash investigation and allow international experts free access to the crash site.
“The separatists are removing evidence from the crash site,” he said. “All of which begs the question: What are they trying to hide?”
In a related development, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said Tuesday in Brussels that the European Union is imposing new sanctions against officials deemed responsible for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Timmermans said the EU’s “forceful decision” imposes visa bans and asset freezes on more officials.
He says the ministers also asked the 28-nation bloc’s executive arm to prepare for more forceful economic sanctions — including targeting the arms, energy and financial sectors — if Russia fails to back down from destabilizing Ukraine.
Timmermans did not specify how many officials were targeted under the latest sanctions, nor did he reveal their names.
After a four-day standoff, international teams were allowed into the crash site to look for more bodies and to gather evidence, but they are cognizant of the political upheaval in the area, which Russia-backed rebels have claimed as independent of Ukraine.
“It has been a different group of separatists every day It is very difficult to actually get any insight as to which battalion or which group they belong to,” Bociurkiw said.
Two hundred bodies of victims have been taken from the site and sent by refrigerated rail cars to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where they are expected to be transported by a cargo plane on Wednesday to the Netherlands. Nearly two-thirds of the victims were Dutch citizens.
Dutch officials noted that rebels had said that the train was carrying 282 bodies but that a hard count showed only 200 on board, the BBC reported. They had no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.
Small teams continue to search for more bodies from among the 298 victims, but monitors suggested that it could take months to scour the crash site’s 6-mile radius.
The personal belongings — luggage, clothes, toys, books — found at the crash site so far have been collected under four tents. One pile was taken to the train station in nearby Tore, but was left on the platform when the train carrying the bodies departed abruptly on Monday for Kharkiv.
The train was met in Kharkiv by police forensic experts as well as representatives of countries whose citizens were aboard the ill-fated plane.
Under mounting world pressure, pro-Russian rebels also handed over data-filled black boxes from the Boeing 777 to Malaysian officials.
A senior separatist leader, Aleksander Borodai, gave the data recorders to a Malaysian delegation early Tuesday in the city of Donetsk, a rebel stronghold.
“Here they are, the black boxes,” Borodai said at the headquarters of his self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Reuters reported.
Col. Mohamed Sakri of the Malaysian National Security Council told the meeting the two black boxes were “in good condition.”
On Monday, the UN Security Council passed a resolution unanimously calling for an international investigation into the downing of the Malaysian plane.
Contributing: Filip Warwick in Torez, Ukraine, William Welch in Los Angeles, and the Associated Press.