Train with remains of MH17 crash victims arrives in Ukraine’s Kharkiv
Bodies leave Ukraine war zone as truce called at MH17 crash site
A train carrying some 280 bodies from downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 arrived on Tuesday in the government-controlled city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, an AFP journalist at the scene said.
Refrigerated wagons carrying the remains were taken to a military factory in the Kiev-held industrial hub where they were set to be unloaded by a team of Dutch experts before being flown out to the Netherlands.
A total of 298 people from about a dozen countries were on board the doomed jet when it was apparently shot down by a surface-to-air missile over rebel-held territory last Thursday.
International outrage had grown over the insurgents’ treatment of the remains after they were left rotting in the summer sun for days before being unceremoniously loaded onto the train wagons.
The Netherlands – which lost 193 people in the crash – has been handed the reins of the investigation and given responsibility for taking the bodies to Amsterdam before sending them on to grieving relatives around the globe.
The train carrying the remains of the victims was finally allowed to leave a rebel-held region in eastern Ukraine as the militants declared a truce on Tuesday around the crash site.
Five days after Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was allegedly shot out of the sky, pro-Russian separatists conceded to a furious international clamour for the bodies and the plane’s black boxes to be handed over to investigators.
The devices, which record cockpit activity and flight data, were handed to Malaysian officials by the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, in front of scores of journalists.
Watch: MH17 bodies to be handed over to Netherlands: Malaysia PM
“We will order a ceasefire in an area of 10km around” the site of the disaster, which killed all 298 people on board the plane, he said.
Meanwhile, after bitter wrangling, the rebels released the bodies of the dead.
Loaded on a train, they will arrive in the government-controlled city of Kharkiv on Tuesday before being put on a plane to the Netherlands, where the flight to Kuala Lumpur originated and which suffered the greatest loss, with 193 citizens killed in the crash.
The rebel concessions came after US President Barack Obama insisted that Moscow force the insurgents it is accused of backing to cooperate with an international probe into the disaster, saying chaos at the impact site was an “insult” to families of the victims.
Moscow, which has drawn ire for failing to rein in the rebels, backed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the downing of the plane and demanding access to the crash site.
At the same time, Russia hit back at US accusations that it supplied the weapons allegedly used to shoot down the airliner – a disaster that has taken Ukraine’s three-month bloody conflict to the doorstep of countries as far away as Malaysia and Australia, scores of whose citizens were also killed in the crash.
On the ground, the animosity between Ukraine’s warring sides was underlined by intense shelling which erupted in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, a city just 60km from the station where the bodies had been held in refrigerated wagons, killing five and leaving 12 wounded.
Watch: Obama: Kerry to push for 'immediate' Gaza ceasefire
Obama put the onus to set the situation straight squarely on Russia, which he said has “direct influence over these separatists”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin must prove “that he supports a full and fair investigation,” Obama said, stressing “the burden now is on Russia to insist that the separatists stop tampering with evidence, grant investigators who are already on the ground immediate, full, and unimpeded access to the crash site”.
Putin had appeared to adopt a conciliatory tone on Sunday, saying Moscow would do “everything in its power” to resolve the conflict in the neighbouring former Soviet state.
However, Moscow slapped down US accusations that the missile system used to shoot down the aircraft was transferred from Russia to separatists.
A senior Russian defence ministry official insisted that “Russia did not give the rebels Buk missile systems or any other kinds of weapons or military hardware”.
Moscow challenged Kiev instead, saying records showed a Ukrainian military plane was flying just three to five kilometres from the Boeing 777 before it crashed on Thursday.
“With what aim was a military plane flying along a civilian aviation route practically at the same time and at the same flight level as a passenger liner?” asked Lieutenant-General Andrei Kartopolov.
Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko swiftly dismissed that claim, calling it an “irresponsible and false statement” by Russia.
Russia’s riposte came after Kiev released fresh recordings of what it says are intercepted conversations between rebels conspiring to hide the flight’s black boxes from international monitors.
And the US embassy confirmed as authentic recordings released earlier by Kiev of an intercepted call between an insurgent commander and a Russian intelligence officer as they realised they had shot down a passenger jet.
The Washington Post said Ukraine’s counterintelligence chief had photographs and other evidence that three Buk M-1 anti-aircraft missile systems moved from rebel-held territory into Russia less than 12 hours after the crash.
Earlier, at the Torez railway station, Dutch investigators wearing masks and headlights were finally allowed to examine the remains of over 200 recovered bodies.
As they opened each of the train wagons holding the remains, an overpowering stench filled the air.
Patience was wearing thin over the limited access to the crash site in Grabove, but Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak said late on Monday that rebels have now agreed to give investigators full freedom to examine the scene.
As grief turned to anger, the public prosecutor’s office in the Netherlands said it had opened a criminal probe into the downing of the plane.
The outrage was palpable in an open letter from Dutch national Hans de Borst, who lost his 17-year-old daughter Elsemiek.
“Thank you very much Mr Putin, separatist leaders or the Ukrainian government, for murdering my dear and only child,” he wrote in the letter published by Dutch media.
“I hope that you’re proud to have destroyed her young life and that you can look yourself in the mirror.”
After meeting bereaved families, an emotional Dutch King Willem-Alexander said the disaster has left “a deep wound in our society”.
Europe brandished the threat of new sanctions against Russia barely a week after the last round of toughened embargoes.
Whole sectors of the economy including goods with possible military uses could be targeted, British Prime Minister David Cameron said, while Canada announced new sanctions on Monday.
The separatists’ violent bid to join Russia is the latest chapter in a prolonged crisis sparked by Kiev’s desire for closer ties with the EU – a sentiment many in the Russian-speaking east do not share.