Work continues in recovering bodies at Ukraine crash site

Bodies, black box handed over

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KHARKIV, Ukraine — Bodies and the flight recorders from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, destroyed by a missile last week over eastern Ukraine, were delivered safely Tuesday from rebel control to this northeast Ukrainian city. Forensics officials raised the strong possibility that the remains of many victims were still buried in the wreckage, and that identification could take weeks or months to complete.

At the same time, international anger swelled over the mistreatment of the victims — whose corpses lay for days strewed across a wheat field — as well as over the pilfering of their belongings and the removal of possible evidence that could determine the weapon used to destroy the plane.

A freight train with five refrigerated rail cars full of body bags lumbered into Kharkiv after a 17-hour journey from the area in rebel-held territory where Flight 17 crashed, completing the initial phase of an agreement reached between Ukrainian separatists and the Malaysian government. Also aboard the train, according to foreign and Ukrainian officials, were the flight data recorders, or black boxes, which were handed over by rebel leaders to Malaysian emissaries Monday in the separatist movement’s self-proclaimed capital of Donetsk.

Yet discrepancies emerged about the precise number of bodies recovered. Malaysian and Ukrainian officials as well as Ukrainian separatist leaders said Monday that 282 bodies and the parts of 16 others had been placed aboard the train, totaling 298, equal to the number of passengers and crew who died.

Jan Tuinder, a Dutch police official leading a team of about 100 foreign experts unloading the train in Kharkiv, told a news conference late Tuesday that he knew “for sure” of just 200 corpses, but added that “there are probably more” on the train and perhaps back at the crash site.

Mr. Tuinder said he had based this count on information “we got from the people who loaded the train,” and said the exact figure would not be clear until the train had been fully unloaded, which could take at least a few days. As of Tuesday night, he added, only two of the refrigerated cars had been opened, with 50 corpses placed in coffins awaiting transport by military plane to the Netherlands.

Ukrainian workers had to clear the tracks of mud and weeds to allow the train to pass along an old stretch of rail leading to a Soviet-era tank factory, where the forensics team began removing the bodies. The train still stalled a few yards from its final destination, and workers threw sand on the tracks to give the locomotive more traction.

Ukrainian, European and U.S. officials have said a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile supplied to the rebels shot down the jetliner. Russian President Vladimir Putin and the rebel leaders whose cause he has supported have strongly denied any responsibility. But the rage was reflected in the words of Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia, a country that lost 37 citizens and other residents. “Anyone who has been watching the latest footage would appreciate that there is still a long, long way to go; after the crime comes the cover-up,” Mr. Abbott said, in reaction to images of separatist militants seen rummaging through the wreckage. “What we have seen is evidence tampering on an industrial scale, and obviously that has to stop.”

Despite the agreement with Malaysia, heavily armed rebels who control the crash site have so far prevented foreign and Ukrainian experts from examining the wreckage or moving it to a more secure place. Some areas of wreckage have been completely unguarded, vulnerable to vandalism.

Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, who is leading a Ukrainian team handling the Malaysia Airlines crash, said the rebels had slowed the repatriation of bodies and efforts to investigate. “Unfortunately, it has taken a long time for the train to get here from the crash site, because of obstructions created by the bandits and terrorists,” he said in Kharkiv, using the Ukraine government’s terminology for the pro-Russia separatists.

Flight 17 was hit at 33,000 feet en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last Thursday, exploding and crashing about 20 miles from the Russian border. All aboard were killed; two-thirds of them Dutch, and the rest from 10 other countries.

Mr. Groysman said Ukraine had asked the Netherlands to lead an international investigation into what he called “a terrible terrorist act.” The black boxes, he said, would be examined in London by specialists from the Netherlands and the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency. Anxious to pre-empt possible allegations from Russia and the rebels that Ukraine has tampered with evidence in an effort to skew the investigation, Mr. Groysman said the black boxes “had not been under the control of the Ukrainian side for a single minute.”

In Washington, U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that they did not yet have definitive proof of who fired the missile. They said an accumulation of evidence — from intercepted communications between rebels to satellite images to social media postings — has led to the conclusion that Ukrainian separatists trained in Russia conducted the attack.

The officials added that the current U.S. assessment was that the separatists had mistaken the civilian plane for a Ukrainian military jet. “The most plausible explanation to me is a mistake,” said one of the intelligence officials, speaking to a group of reporters on condition of anonymity because he was discussing classified information, and because the investigation was continuing.

The intelligence official said that U.S. spy agencies had confirmed the authenticity of an audio recording released last week by Ukraine’s government in which two rebels were discussing the plane being shot down. The official said that voice recognition technology made the determination, comparing it to previous recordings of Igor Bezler, one of the rebels on the message. The officials said satellites in recent weeks observed a steady stream of military equipment — from tanks to armored personnel carriers to missile systems — move from a Russian base in Rostov into Ukraine.

Ester Naber, a Dutch police spokeswoman, said the remains would all be placed in new body bags, put into wooden coffins, and flown to the Netherlands in a process that would most likely start today. She said the bodies would be flown to a military airfield at Eindhoven, Netherlands, and transferred to a military base at Hilversum. The remains will be returned to their home countries once identifications have been completed, a process that Ms. Naber said “could take weeks or even months, depending on the state of the bodies.”

At the crash site Tuesday, the scene had changed yet again, with rescue workers entirely gone, and even their tents packed up, said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has deployed a team of monitors in rebel-held territory. Even the security detail the rebels provided to the monitors seemed to have been downgraded, with smaller numbers of guards. While there have been broad reports of personal items being stolen, Mr. Bociurkiw said no evidence of that was seen Tuesday.

United States - North America - Asia - Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Southeast Asia - Western Europe - Ukraine - Vladimir Putin - Netherlands - Tony Abbott - Malaysia - Rostov-on-Don - Kharkiv


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