The U.S. urged Russia to give investigators full access to the crash site of a Malaysian Airlines passenger jet shot down last week as European leaders called for further intensification of sanctions.
The U.S. is “deeply concerned” about the refusal by pro-Russian rebels to provide safe and unfettered access to the crash site in eastern Ukraine, Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We urge Russia to honor its commitments and to publicly call on the separatists to do the same,” she said.
Ukraine has recovered 196 bodies from the crash site, Defense Ministry spokesman Andriy Lysenko told reporters today, after Iryna Gudyma, a spokeswoman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, denied a report from the Associated Press that rebels had removed the bodies from the site. The plane had 298 people on board.
Pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin is mounting, three days after the crash of MH17 focused global attention on the crisis that has divided the east European nation. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte say the European Union will need to reconsider its approach to Russia.
“We must turn this moment of outrage into a moment of action,” Cameron wrote in the Sunday Times newspaper in London today. “This is not about military action, plainly. But it is time to make our power, influence and resources count.”
As many as 900 rebels are putting investigators under pressure, according to Ukrainian Deputy Premier Volodymyr Hroisman. An official with the OSCE, Michael Bociurkiw, said the atmosphere at the site yesterday was “surreal.”
The jet’s flight data recorders, known as black boxes, still haven’t been found, he said, speaking from the crash site near Torez, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Russian border in eastern Ukraine. “There is a lot of security here, with many heavily armed people,” he said.
“The site is not secure, and there are multiple reports of bodies being removed, parts of the plane and other debris being hauled away, and potential evidence tampered with,” the State Department’s Psaki wrote.
Ukraine separatists had in their possession “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 yesterday. He said that as part of what he called a cover-up of who fired the missile, three of the systems were transported back to Russia just hours after the plane was shot down. Nayda displayed photos which he said showed them on the road to the Russian border.
Russia has denied it supplies arms to the separatists and the rebels have denied they fired the missile.
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.
While Ukraine officials have called for a special cease-fire zone to be honored at the crash site, Ukraine’s Hroisman said that neither the separatists nor their Russian allies have provided guarantees for security.
“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 yesterday. Body transportation “is the question No. 1 for us,” he said.
The crash, which claimed the lives of all of those aboard Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, has deepened Europe’s worst political crisis since the Cold War ended.
President Barack Obama on July 18 said the U.S. had determined that the plane, a Boeing Co. 777, was struck by a missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian insurgents. Obama, who has said Russia is behind the arming of the separatists, also decried what he termed Putin’s refusal to “de-escalate the situation.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin spoke by phone early yesterday 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.
Sanctions on Russia
As Ukraine accuses Russia of supplying the missile, 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.
Sanctions imposed by the U.S. since the Ukraine crisis began have been more far-reaching than those adopted by the European Union, though the plane disaster may alter that disparity.
U.S. Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, yesterday broached his suspicions of a cover-up.
“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, a U.S. law enforcement official said. As of yesterday, they were waiting in Kiev for security conditions to improve before going to the crash site, the official said.
An investigator for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board who left Washington on July 18 hadn’t made it to the crash site as of late yesterday, said a person briefed on the matter who requested anonymity in discussing it.
In Grabovo, a village where much of the plane’s debris is scattered, reporters found gunmen looking on as rescue workers gathered bodies.
The gunmen, representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, let workers from Ukraine’s Emergency Ministry set up tents at the scene while limiting access to international investigators.
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 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.
When it was hit, Flight 17 was at about 33,000 feet (10,000 meters), taking a route over Ukraine that several other carriers have been avoiding. The jet was at an altitude cleared for commercial traffic, according to navigation agency Eurocontrol.
In March, Malaysian Airline Flight 370 vanished with 239 people on board en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. It has yet to be located.