Pressure Grows on Putin as Forensics Experts Reach Crash Victims in Ukraine

New York Times
July 21, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine — Dutch forensics experts gained access on Monday to the remains of the victims from the downed Malaysia Airlines jet in eastern Ukraine after days of standoffs over access to the site and growing pressure on President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to clear the way for a full international investigation.

European leaders threatened new sanctions on Russia as soon as Tuesday, suggesting they were increasingly open to the harder line being taken against Moscow by the United States, which has accused Russia of providing the surface-to-air missile system that brought down the jetliner, training rebels in how to use it, and perhaps even supplying experts who helped to fire it.

Mr. Putin issued a brief statement early on Monday saying that Russia would work to ensure that the conflict in eastern Ukraine moved from the battlefield to the negotiating table. He said that a robust international investigating team must have secure access to the crash site, but also accused unspecified nations of exploiting the disaster in pursuit of “mercenary political goals.”

The slow pace at which the bodies have been recovered and the destruction or removal of potential evidence of what happened has generated growing anger at the separatist rebels and at Mr. Putin.

Even as the Dutch experts arrived on Monday in the town of Torez in eastern Ukraine, where the bodies of the victims have been collected in refrigerated rail cars, the Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, said that pro-Russian rebels who control the area were preventing the train from leaving.

The body identification experts, wearing shirts bearing the insignia of the forensics unit of the Dutch national police, donned blue latex gloves and put masks over their mouths and noses, and one asked for a flashlight, as they made an initial inspection of bodies that lay in black trash bags piled toward the back of one wagon. They repeated the process in two other train cars.

The Dutch experts were accompanied by representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been conducting an international monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine and quickly sent observers at the plane wreckage site, where they said their efforts were limited by rebels until Sunday, when they were granted broader access.

As the experts began their work, heavy fighting, including mortar shelling, was underway between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military, in the nearby regional capital of Donetsk, a rebel stronghold about 50 miles from the crash site. A spokesman for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Sergei Vladimirovich, said that the government forces had begun pushing into the city from the northwest, near a market by the main train station, and a witness reported seeing heavy shelling in the area including damage at a children’s hospital.

“A fight is going on,” he said by telephone. “There are casualties but we don’t know how many. We are still trying to figure out what is happening.” A Ukrainian military spokesman, Vladislav Seleznyov, would not provide details, citing military secrecy, but confirmed the fighting, calling it “an active phase of the antiterrorist operation.”

With fighting still raging and access to the crash site still difficult, European leaders maneuvered to overcome longstanding divisions about imposing significantly tighter sanctions against Moscow.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, whose country bore the brunt of the casualties, told Parliament that “all political, economic and financial options” were available as the European Union prepared to debate measures further isolating the Russian leader.

“It is clear that Russia must use her influence on the separatists to improve the situation on the ground,” Mr. Rutte said, according to Reuters. “If in the coming days access to the disaster area remains inadequate, then all political, economic and financial options are on the table against those who are directly or indirectly responsible for that,” he said.

His words found an echo from George Osborne, the British chancellor of the Exchequer, who said Britain was prepared to tighten sanctions even if that meant losing Russian business in London’s economically vital financial services industry. “Any sanctions will have an economic impact, and we are prepared to undertake further sanctions,” he said in a BBC radio interview.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said he told Mr. Putin in telephone conversation on Sunday that the world expects Russia to use its influence on the separatists to open up the crash site.

“The world also wants to see a real change in the stance Russia has taken over the crisis in Ukraine,” Mr. Cameron said he told the Russian president during a visit to Wales in advance of a statement to Parliament. “We need no more weapons crossing the border, no more troops crossing the border, no more support for the separatists, respect for Ukrainian territorial integrity.”

“In terms of sanctions,” he added, “I’m very clear, having spoken to Angela Merkel and François Hollande, that the European Union will be ready for further steps in terms of other areas of, particularly, some forms of advanced industrial goods which might have dual uses for defense purposes as well.”

His remarks followed a telephone conversation over the weekend between the leaders of Britain, France and Germany who were reported to have agreed that their countries should be ready to use a meeting of the 28-nation European Union’s foreign ministers on Tuesday to introduce tougher sanctions. The comments also came a day after the American secretary of state, John Kerry, said he was warning Mr. Putin “for the last time” to stabilize eastern Ukraine and halt the flow of weapons to separatists there. He called their handling of the victims’ remains, which the rebels seized from Ukrainian rescue workers, “grotesque.”

But some European governments are cautious about supporting sanctions that would provoke reprisals from Russia — a key source of energy supplies to many European nations.

Mr. Yatsenyuk said that the emergency services and hundreds of volunteers had gathered 272 bodies from fields near the village of Grabovo. He added, however, that the area, including the rail station, remained under the control of rebels and that the train carrying the bodies was not being allowed to leave.

“These bloody guerrillas do not allow the train to leave the area,” he said at a news conference in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

Mr. Putin’s statement did not directly address the allegations that Russia supplied the weapon system and expertise needed to shoot down the plane. “Russia will do everything it can to shift the conflict in eastern Ukraine from today’s military stage to the stage of discussion at the negotiating table,” Mr. Putin said in video statement posted at 1:40 a.m. on Monday, suggesting it emerged from a late-night discussion.

It was unclear, however, whether such an indirect call to allow the investigation into the flight to proceed would satisfy the growing chorus of critics demanding that Mr. Putin intervene directly with the pro-Russian separatists.

Later on Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said a briefing that images that purported to show a surface-to-air missile system being driven toward Russia after the downing of the plane were fake, Interfax reported. The Defense Ministry also said that an American satellite was flying over eastern Ukraine at the time of the crash, Interfax reported, and it asked Washington to release the satellite imagery.

In Torez, about 40 miles east, where the bodies of Flight 17 victims were being held, the Dutch forensics specialists arrived at about 11:30 a.m. and bowed their heads for a few seconds of silence. The first wagon was opened by a woman, apparently a railroad worker, in a tight satiny black skirt, tight white shirt and high wedge heels with purple straps.

After a preliminary inspection, Peter van Vliet, one of the Dutch investigators, said, “I think the storage of the bodies is of good quality.” He then turned away and walked back with his colleagues to the train, where O.S.C.E. workers said they would seal the wagons.

The Ukrainian government had said it planned to base the investigation into the downing of the jet in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine’s biggest city, which lies around 190 miles north of the crash site and is under the control of the government in Kiev.

A larger team of forensic experts, including 23 from the Netherlands, two from Germany, two from the United States, and one from Britain, arrived in Kharkiv early Monday.

“We are here to get the bodies back to their countries and to their families. We will try our utmost to do this as quickly as possible,” Michel Oz, the group’s Dutch coordinator, said. But he added that it was still unclear whether the separatist rebels who control the crash site and the nearby railway station at Torez would allow a train loaded with corpses to leave for Kharkiv. “We have no information,” he said.

Mr. Oz said the international team now assembling in Kharkiv included experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a unit of the German federal police that handles the identification of disaster victims, as well as officials from Britain and Australia. Malaysia is also due to join the effort.

An Australian official who declined to be identified voiced dismay that the bodies were effectively being held hostage by separatist rebels. “We have no idea what is going on and when we can get the bodies,” he said. Igor Baluta, the governor of Kharkiv, complained that the separatists were frustrating efforts to identify corpses and return them to their families.

“We are all ready here. We are prepared to receive the bodies but everything depends on getting an agreement” with the rebels, Mr. Baluta told reporters on Monday.

David M. Herszenhorn reported from Kiev; Sabrina Tavernise from Torez, Ukraine; and Neil MacFarquhar from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Noah Sneider in Torez; Michelle Innis in Sydney, Australia, and Andrew Higgins in Kharkiv, Ukraine; Alan Cowell in London; and James Kanter in Brussels.

  1. #1 by Noble House on Tuesday, 22 July 2014 - 5:09 am

    Amid global outrage and expressed concern over the apparent downing of Flight MH17 and countries such as The Netherlands and Australia mounting on the pressure, Najib, in a prepared statement, clarified Malaysia’s cautious response saying that discretion was often necessary to secure “a better outcome” in a hastily-convened press conference at his official residence in Putrajaya today.

    I am not sure what he meant by “a better outcome” but his trademark silence is one of deafening as we all know.

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