MH17 body transfer held up

Last updated 22:44 21/07/2014

Tributes for victims of Ukraine crash

Is this the MH17 black box?

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Bodies recovered from the MH17 crash site will be transferred to Amsterdam as soon as pro-Russian separatists agree to their transfer out of rebel territory, the Ukraine prime minister says.

An emotional Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a press conference in Kiev that the “key priority” was to recover the bodies, and to “unfold to the entire world the truth” of what had destroyed the plane and killed its passengers.

He said that at latest count 272 bodies had been found by emergency workers and volunteers at the crash site, of which 251 were in refrigerated train carriages at the nearby Torez railway station.

However, negotiations were still under way to give the train safe passage out of separatist-controlled territory east of Donetsk, where renewed fighting broke out between Ukraine and separatist forces on Monday morning.

Yatsenyuk said, through an interpreter, that so far the separatists had not allowed the train to move.

“Motivated and led by Russia, the terrorists do not allow us to evacuate all the bodies and to abandon the station of Torez in order to bring them to the designated place,” he said.

He added in English: “These bloody guerrillas do not allow the train to leave the area. We expect that the train will leave the area as soon as possible.”

Crash investigation and forensic work would be transferred to a Dutch-led international team, including Australian experts, he said, pledging that the investigation would be “all-embracing, full-fledge and transparent”.

“Ukraine is ready to transfer the co-ordinating role on the investigation of this terrible tragedy to our western partners,” he said.

“The Netherlands can head this process in a clear co-ordination with the Ukrainian structures and the entire international community.”

The ultimate destination of the bodies was therefore up to that international team.

Yatseniuk said the autopsies and other forensic work on the bodies would take place outside Ukraine.

“We are ready to transfer all bodies directly to Amsterdam as one of the best well-equipped forensic laboratories is located in Amsterdam,” he said.

“The key priority for us is to recover the bodies, to collect all evidence of this crime... We facilitated a route how to deliver these bodies to any destination which is needed including Kiev or Amsterdam. In Amsterdam we can get the perfect forensic expertise as our Dutch partners can provide well-equipped facilities.

“There is not indication of any kind of military activity or counter-terrorist operation at the area of crash site. We do understand our responsibility. Because the key priority is to collect all evidence and to have thorough investigation.”

Yatesnyuk said there was “no doubt” that the plane was shot down by missile launch experts trained in Russia.

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“This is why this terrible international tragedy, this international crime against humanity has to be investigated by the international commission and I emphasise once more we are ready to for the Netherlands to take up the management of the investigation and co-ordination as a country that suffered most of all, involving all the international community.”

“Those who committed this international crime, those responsible will be held accountable and together with the entire international community we will bring to justice everyone responsible. Including the country which is behind this scene but supplied illegal weapons, provided the financial support, trained these bastards and supported and even orchestrated this kind of despicable crime.

The search and rescue operations on Sunday involved 810 people, including 335 Ukraine emergency services workers in 35 units – 20 of whom were divers searching a local lake.

The search area has expanded to about 120 square kilometres, the government said.

As Yatsenyuk spoke, reports of renewed fighting in Donetsk began to filter through. Government forces are believed to be trying to retake the city from pro-Russian rebels.

Artillery fire sent plumes of smoke skywards, as minibuses brought dozens of rebels to the area in the centre of the city and people fled.

"It is dangerous near the railway station!" the Donetsk city council said in a statement on its website, asking residents in the area to stay indoors.

Donetsk is about 60km from the Torez train station, where the MH17 bodies are being stored.

Earlier on Monday, three members of a Dutch Disaster Victims Identification team arrived in Donetsk, hoping to check the remains of some of the victims of the plane crash. A team of Malaysian officials were also due to arrive on Monday.

Three Australian embassy representatives had touched down in Kharkiv, and will be part of a 31-strong team of international experts on its way to the crash site. 

The downing of the airliner has intensified calls for the fighting to end in eastern Ukraine.

Sergei Kavtaradze, an official of the rebels' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said there were at least four tanks and armoured vehicles trying to break through into the city.

A spokesman for Ukraine's military operations in eastern Ukraine said the operation was in an "active phase" but could not comment on reports of troops entering Donetsk because he did not want to give away the Ukrainian strategy.

PUTIN SPEAKS

Russian President Vladimir Putin says the downing of a Malaysian airliner in east Ukraine must not be used for political ends and urged separatists to allow international experts access to the crash site.

‘‘Everything must be done to guarantee the security of international experts at the site of the tragedy,’’ Putin, wearing a dark suit and tie, said in an unusual televised address standing alone by a desk in an office.

Putin, who looked drawn, reiterated his belief that the incident would not have happened if Ukrainian government forces had not ended a truce and resumed a military campaign against the pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

‘‘However, nobody should — and no-one has the right to — use  this tragedy to achieve selfish political ends. Such events should not divide people but unite them,’’ he said.

Putin’s comments, following a flurry of telephone diplomacy, appeared aimed at countering criticism by Western leaders who accused him of doing little to persuade separatists whom they believe shot down the airliner to stop fighting.

Putin defended his role in the crisis and reiterated calls for an end to hostilities in eastern Ukraine.

‘‘We have more than once called on all sides in the conflict to immediately stop the bloodshed and begin negotiations,’’ he said.

He called for a ‘‘humanitarian corridor’’ to allow experts access to the site where the airliner was brought down, killing all 298 people on board, in rebel-controlled territory but stopped short of issuing a public appeal to the separatists.

US and European leaders, who have imposed sanctions on Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and its role in the east, say weapons and fighters flowing across Russia’s border into Ukraine are fuelling the violence.

Criticism of Russia’s role has turned to anger in Western capitals over gruesome accounts of bodies and evidence being manhandled by fighters and residents.

Despite calls for an end to fighting, clashes broke on Monday out in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk near a railway station, with artillery fire sending plumes of smoke skywards in what separatists said was an attempt by government forces to enter the city they seized in April.  

'BLOCKED EXIT'

In a statement, the Ukrainian government committee investigating the disaster said the first train where the remains of almost 200 victims have been placed before starting their journey home was stuck in the station in the town of Torez because "terrorists are blocking its exit".

US Secretary of State John Kerry laid out what he called overwhelming evidence of Russian complicity in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 as international horror deepened over the fate of the victims' remains.

Kerry demanded that Moscow take responsibility for actions of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine whom Washington suspects of downing the jet with a missile, and expressed disgust at their "grotesque" mishandling of the bodies.

Television images of the rebel-held crash sites, where the remains of victims had lain decomposing in fields among their personal belongings, have turned initial shock and sorrow after Thursday's disaster into anger.

Emotions ran high in the Netherlands, the home country of about two-thirds of the 298 people who died in the Boeing 777. The Dutch foreign minister has said the nation is "furious" to hear bodies were being "dragged around", while relatives and church leaders demanded they be rapidly returned home.

But the departure of dozens of corpses loaded into refrigerated railway wagons was delayed on Sunday as Ukrainian officials and rebels traded blame over why the train had not yet left the war zone, and where or when international investigators would be able to check it.

The UN Security Council is scheduled to vote on Monday on a resolution that would condemn the downing of the plane and demands that those responsible be held accountable and that armed groups not compromise the integrity of the crash site.

In an apparent bid to compromise with Moscow, the wording of the resolution, drafted by Australia, was changed to characterize the incident as the "downing" of the flight, instead of "shooting down," according to the final draft obtained by Reuters. Diplomats said it was unclear if Russia would support the final version.

In Washington, Kerry criticised Russian President Vladimir Putin and threatened "additional steps" against Moscow.

"Drunken separatists have been piling bodies into trucks and removing them from the site," he said on NBC television on Sunday. "What's happening is really grotesque and it is contrary to everything President Putin and Russia said they would do."

Moscow denies any involvement in the disaster and has blamed the Ukrainian military. While stopping short of direct blame on Moscow, Kerry put forward the most detailed US accusations so far, based on the latest US intelligence assessments.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond urged Moscow to ensure international investigators had access to the crash sites. "Russia risks becoming a pariah state if it does not behave properly," he told Sky television.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he had spoken "overnight" to Putin for the first time about the disaster, amid mounting horror over the treatment of victims' remains. At least 28 Australian passengers were on the Malaysia Airlines flight.

Abbott said an Australian investigation team was in Kiev but had been unable to travel to the site. He said there had been some improvement with the Ukrainian government offering access.

"But there's still a hell of a long way to go before anyone could be satisfied with the way that site is being treated," Abbott said. "It's more like a garden cleanup than a forensic investigation. This is completely unacceptable."

After lying for two days in the summer heat, the bodies had been removed from much of the crash site by Sunday, leaving only bloodstained military stretchers along the side of the road.

Emergency workers, who have to navigate reporting both to the authorities in Kiev and the rebels who control the crash site and other areas in the Donetsk region, will now need to pick through the debris spread across the Ukrainian steppe.

As Ukraine accused the rebels of hiding evidence relating to the loss of the airliner, a separatist leader said items thought to be the stricken jet's "black boxes" were now in rebel hands.

Investigators from the UN aviation agency arrived in Ukraine to help probe the crash, but a senior official said safety concerns prevented them from reaching the crash site.

"Until safe passage for them is assured, we don't send people into that kind of situation," said the official with the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organisation.

US CASE

Kerry said the United States had seen supplies moving into Ukraine from Russia in the last month, including a 150-vehicle convoy of armoured personnel carriers, tanks and rocket launchers given to the separatists.

It had also intercepted conversations about the transfer to separatists of the Russian radar-guided SA-11 missile system, which it blames for the Boeing 777's destruction. "It's pretty clear that this is a system that was transferred from Russia," Kerry said in an interview on CNN.

"There's enormous amount of evidence, even more evidence that I just documented, that points to the involvement of Russia in providing these systems, training the people on them," he said on CBS.

Kerry's evidence of a Russian connection tracked closely with an official unclassified U.S. intelligence summary released over the weekend. It said intelligence analysts confirmed the authenticity of an audiotaped conversation provided to the press by Ukrainian authorities of a known separatist leader boasting of downing the plane.

"We also have information indicating that Russia is providing training to separatist fighters at a facility in southwest Russia" that includes missile systems, it said.

The disaster has sharply deepened the Ukrainian crisis in which the separatists in the Russian-speaking east have been fighting government forces since protesters in Kiev forced out a pro-Moscow president and Russia annexed Crimea in March.

The United States has already imposed sanctions on individuals and businesses close to Putin but Kerry indicated that President Barack Obama might go further. "The president is prepared to take additional steps," he told Fox News, although he ruled out sending in U.S. troops.

European Union ministers should be ready to announce a fresh round of sanctions at a meeting of the EU's Foreign Affairs Council this week, said a statement from British Prime Minister David Cameron's office, issued after telephone calls with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"They ... agreed that the EU must reconsider its approach to Russia and that foreign ministers should be ready to impose further sanctions on Russia when they meet on Tuesday," it said.

The leaders also agreed to press Putin to ensure investigators had free access to the crash site.

IDENTIFICATION SPECIALISTS

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said all efforts were focusing on getting the train loaded with bodies to territory controlled by the Ukrainian authorities.

The European security organisation, the OSCE, was negotiating with the separatists, he said, adding that a team of victim identification specialists was likely to enter the crash site on Monday.

While Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko issued a renewed appeal for backing from the international community, some European nations, with an eye to their trade links with Russia, have been less enthusiastic about confronting Moscow.

Kerry challenged the Europeans to be more assertive.

"It would help enormously if some countries in Europe that have been a little reluctant to move would now recognise this wakeup call and join the United States and President Obama in taking the lead, and also stepping up," he said.

A spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council, Andriy Lysenko, accused the rebels of a cover-up. "The terrorists are doing everything to hide the evidence of the involvement of Russian missiles in the shooting down of that airliner," he told a news conference in Kiev.

He said the rebels had taken debris and bodies from the crash site in trucks, tampering with a scene that investigators need to be secure to have a chance of determining what and who caused the plane to plunge into the steppe.

MEMORIAL SHRINE

OSCE observers visited part of the crash site for a third day on Sunday. Just before their arrival, emergency workers found parts of three more bodies and put them in black body bags on the side of a road.

At the site where the cockpit fell, in a field of sunflowers near the village of Razsypnoye, residents had made a small memorial shrine of flowers, candles in tiny jars and brightly coloured teddy bears.

Photocopied pictures of children and families killed in the disaster, apparently from news coverage of the victims, had been set out on the grass.

All bodies, including that of a woman who had lain naked under a tarp about 50m away, had been removed.

"There were five or six over here, and two or three over there," said a young man with a rifle guarding the site, who declined to give his name. "They took the bodies away to the morgue. Firstly, they were decomposing. And secondly, the smell was horrible."

- Sydney Morning Herald, Reuters

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