Ukraine Says 2 Fighter Jets Are Shot Down as Clashes Intensify

New York Times
JULY 23, 2014

KIEV, Ukraine — Fighting intensified in the rebel-controlled region of Ukraine on Wednesday, with military officials reporting that two Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jets had been shot down near the village of Dmytrivka in the east.

Few details of the latest downings were available. But the news was reported as Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council in Kiev said the military operation to suppress the insurgents was advancing in the east, with government troops having retaken two cities in the Luhansk region as they continued an aggressive push from the north and west.

Officials said rebels had blown up a road bridge, a railroad bridge and train tracks in the city of Gorlivka, and they reported continued fierce fighting along a section of the border with Russia that remains porous. Ukrainian forces are increasingly desperate to seal that border to prevent resupplies of weapons or new fighters from entering Ukraine.

A Ukrainian military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said Russia had strengthened its troop presence along the border and cross-border gunfire had increased.

The reported downing of the two fighter jets was a serious blow to the Ukrainian military, which has limited air power.

In the Netherlands, two military transport aircraft arrived at an air-base in Eindhoven at midafternoon on Wednesday, carrying 40 coffins with the first bodies of victims from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine last week. The aircraft were greeted by a minute’s silence from dignitaries and others, led by King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima and Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

The solemn moment in bright sunlight was part of a day of national mourning over the Flight 17 disaster, which killed 298 people, two-thirds of them from the Netherlands. After a trumpeter played the Last Post, military pallbearers marched up a loading ramp to unload the coffins as motorcycle outriders escorted a convoy of 40 hearses across the tarmac.

The identities of those in wooden coffins aboard the Dutch and Australian military transports, which flew in from Kharkiv, Ukraine, were not known. None of the bodies collected from the crash site have been identified. Ukraine and Malaysia have authorized the Netherlands to identify and repatriate all the recovered remains, which could take months.

Before the remains left the country, Ukrainian officials and foreign diplomats mixed tributes to the dead with angry demands that those responsible be brought to justice.

“This is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions,” an Australian representative, Angus Houston, said at the gathering, flanked by a Ukrainian military honor guard dressed in black uniforms.

The Ukrainian vice prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, said, “Those who are guilty for this terrorist act will be punished.”

Mr. Groysman left no doubt that Ukraine believed that the guilty parties were not only pro-Russia rebels who control the territory in eastern Ukraine where the plane crashed, but also Russia, asserting, “Russian military personnel launched the missile that hit a civilian Malaysian aircraft.”

“We are today sending off innocents who were murdered,” he said.

Officers from the Kiev Military Academy, dressed in blue uniforms with yellow braid — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — carried four wooden coffins into the plane, which took off at noon bound for the Netherlands with 16 bodies on board, according to Dutch officials. A second plane from Australia was due to take 24 more bodies, also to the Netherlands, later on Wednesday.

Although foreign officials at the ceremony called for justice, they did not assign blame. That stood in contrast to Mr. Groysman, who denounced what he called “Russian aggression” against Ukraine.

As the plane carrying the first bodies took off, a Ukrainian woman waved a hand-drawn sign reading “Judge Putin in the Hague,” a reference to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

The woman, Alexandra Kharchenko, a 39-year-old designer who lives in Kharkiv, said Mr. Putin should be called before an international tribunal. She accused him of encouraging and arming the pro-Russia separatists whom Ukraine and the United States have accused of firing the surface-to-air missile that downed the jet.

“I just want to draw attention to who is ultimately responsible for this crime,” Ms. Kharchenko said.

The Kremlin and the rebels have repeatedly denied any role in shooting down the plane and have said the blame lies with Ukraine.

A representative for the Dutch government at the farewell ceremony in Kharkiv called for patience in assessing exactly what happened. He cautioned that even identifying the bodies — a task that will be carried out by Dutch specialists at a laboratory in the Netherlands — would be a long and laborious process.

The bodies, held for days by the rebels, were delivered to Kharkiv by rail on Tuesday, along with the data and voice recorders from the plane. It will take at least several days for experts to unload five refrigerated railway cars at a Soviet-era tank factory in the city, place the bodies in coffins and fly them to the Netherlands.

“Today your journey home begins,” said Hans Docter, a Dutch representative. “It will still be a long journey. We have started a process that will take time. We have to do this right. The eyes of the world are upon us.”

In Britain, the Department for Transportation confirmed in a statement Wednesday that Dutch investigators had delivered the data and voice recorders to the department’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

Under international rules, Ukraine, as the country where the accident took place, would normally be first in line to lead the inquiry, followed by Malaysia, as the country in which the aircraft was registered. Both governments exercised their authority to delegate the responsibility to another country.

David M. Herszenhorn reported from Kiev, and Andrew Higgins from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Nicola Clark contributed reporting from Paris, and Alan Cowell from London.

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