Tensions mounted over the Malaysian Airlines jet crash in eastern Ukraine as investigators struggled to get control of the site and foreign governments expressed anger at the chaos on the ground.
As Ukraine officials in Kiev demanded that pro-Russian rebels give unfettered access to the area and urged pressure be applied to achieve that, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the atmosphere at the site is “surreal.”
“There is a lot of security here, with many heavily armed people,” spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said in a phone briefing from the site near Torez, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Russian border. The 24-member OSCE team saw unidentified people moving bodies to the side of the road, he said.
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, told reporters in Kiev today that “Russian mercenaries loaded bodies onto trucks” and delivered them to nearby Donetsk to search for debris in the victims from the missile believed to have downed the plane on July 17.
While Ukraine officials have called for a special cease-fire zone to be honored at the crash site, Deputy Premier Volodymyr Hroisman said that neither separatists in the region nor their Russian allies have provided guarantees for security.
‘Question No. 1’
“We are doing our best to get access and to be able to transport bodies to send them to their homelands after the necessary examination,” Hroisman told reporters in Kiev today. Body transportation “ is the question No. 1 for us,” he said.
The crash, which killed all 298 on board Flight 17, is deepening an international crisis sparked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year and was already Europe’s worst since the Cold War ended. President Barack Obama yesterday said the plane was brought down by a missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian insurgents, and that President Vladimir Putin is refusing to “de-escalate” the situation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin spoke by phone this morning and agreed that the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations specialized agency, should lead the crash investigation. Both leaders also stressed the necessity of ending armed clashes in southeastern Ukraine and starting peace talks, according to a Kremlin statement.
Ukraine accuses Russia of supplying the missile, while Putin has blamed the Kiev government, saying the crash wouldn’t have happened had it not fomented the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The disaster occurred hours after the U.S. and the European Union imposed further sanctions on Putin.
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after a phone conversation today that the European Union will need to reconsider its approach to Russia, according to a statement from Cameron’s office. Sanctions imposed by the U.S. since the Ukraine crisis began earlier this year have been more far-reaching than those adopted by the EU.
Ukraine rebels had “at least” three Russian-made surface-to-air missile systems known by their NATO designation SA-11 Gadfly, Ukraine state security official Vitaliy Nayda said in Kiev today. The Gadfly, known locally as the Buk-M, is a radar-guided weapon that can find a target at a range of 140 miles and reach altitudes as high as about 72,000 feet, according to the army-technology.com website.
Nayda said that as part of a cover-up of responsibility for the firing of the missile, three Buk-Ms were transported back to Russia just hours after the plane was shot down. He displayed photos which he said showed the systems on the road to the Russian border.
He also said the missile had been fired from the town of Snizhne, which is controlled by the separatists.
U.S. Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said today he suspects a cover-up is underway by the rebels in eastern Ukraine.
“I think what’s happened is a rather poorly trained separatist group here probably have inadvertently shot down an airliner and are now trying to cover this up,” he said on CNN. “That’s the part you see on the ground.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has dispatched two agents with training in forensics and crime scenes to Ukraine to assist in collecting evidence at the crash scene, a U.S. law enforcement official said. They are waiting in Kiev for security conditions to improve before heading to the crash site, the official said.
An investigator for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board who left Washington late yesterday hadn’t made it to the crash site yet, a person briefed on the investigator’s progress said. The person asked not to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak about the incident.
Malaysia, which is suffering its second plane tragedy in four months, is sending its transport minister to Kiev.
“Any action that can prevent us from learning about the truth of MH17 cannot be tolerated,” Liow Tiong Lai told reporters at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, using shorthand for the plane’s designation.
“Malaysia calls for all parties to protect the integrity of the crash site and to allow the investigation to proceed,” he said. “Yes, MH17 has become a geopolitical issue. But we must not forget that it is a human tragedy.”
At the crash site, OSCE workers yesterday were given only 70 minutes to tour the site during an inspection that was interrupted by masked rebels shooting weapons into the air, spokesmen for the Vienna-based organization said.
OSCE’s Bociurkiw today said his team was trying to determine the identities of the people moving the remains and who they represent. He said the jet’s flight data recorders -- known as black boxes -- still haven’t been found. The Ukraine government said rebels have taken at least 38 bodies to Donetsk, the regional capital.
At the Dutch embassy in Kiev, people left thousands of flowers, candles and toys to remember the travelers from the Netherlands who died in the crash. The missile strike knocked the Boeing Co. 777, on flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, from the sky within 50 kilometers of the Russian border.
The majority of the passengers -- at least 192 -- were from the Netherlands, including a Dutch senator who died with his wife and daughter, and a University of Amsterdam academic, who worked to bring cheaper AIDS drugs to Africa.
“I feel very sorry for all these innocent people who were killed, and for the children,” said Halyna Vituk, 64, as she broke into tears, dressed all in white and carrying sunflowers and a candle at the embassy in Kiev. “Putin should bear all the responsibility. And of course, the separatists. But they will not shoot without his order.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Fraher at email@example.com Don Frederick, Nancy Moran