Flight MH17 Families Face Long Wait for Return of Victims

Updated on
MH17 Wreckage
A pro-Russia rebel looks at wreckage from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 lying in a field in Grabovo, Ukraine, on July 22, 2014. Photographer: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

Families of the victims of flight MH17 may have to wait weeks to recover the remains of loved ones after the pro-Russian separatists the U.S. accuses of downing the jet turned over most of the bodies to Ukraine.

“The task of identifying the victims is a process that must be conducted carefully and accurately,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said today in a statement. “By its very nature, it may take some weeks before we can honor the dead by returning them to those they loved and those that loved them.”

A train carrying 282 bodies and remains of the victims arrived yesterday in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, ending a four-day standoff with the separatists. The Netherlands, where the flight originated, declared a national day of mourning today as it prepared to receive the bodies for identification.

Forensics work is accelerating as international pressure builds on Russian President Vladimir Putin to expedite a probe into who destroyed the Malaysia Airlines jet carrying 298 passengers and crew. While Russia has denied supplying rebels with the type of missile that is suspected of downing the plane, U.S. intelligence officials yesterday said satellite images document the likelihood that a surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-held territory in Ukraine shot down the airliner.

“The downing of commercial jetliner MH17 is a cruel act, and an evil, violent crime,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said in Parliament today. “Some questions require immediate answers. Was the plane shot down by a missile, and on whose instructions? Who supplied the weapons, what was their real motive, and if it was a premeditated act or an error?”

Black Boxes

Rebels also turned over to Malaysian officials the in-flight recorders, which may give clues about the last moments of the July 17 flight as it passed over Eastern Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The boxes will be passed to the U.K.’s Air Accident Investigations Board in Farnborough, Malaysia’s Transport Ministry said in a statement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said his opponents are using the crash for “selfish political gains.” The European Union yesterday threatened to restrict the country’s access to capital markets and sensitive energy and defense technologies to squeeze its finances as the crash added to pressure to punish Russia further for its role in the Ukraine.

Russia already has been feeling the effects of international restrictions. The nation canceled its first ruble bond auction in three months after borrowing costs surged to the highest level in more than two months on the U.S. and EU criticism.

EU Sanctions

EU governments would move toward the stiffer sanctions if Putin refuses to abide by a United Nations resolution calling for an international probe into the disaster and unimpeded access to the crash site. The timetable was left open, depending on proposals to be made by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm.

The slow pace of the investigation into the MH17 crash is fueling outrage, particularly in countries who suffered the most losses. There were 193 Dutch nationals on board, 43 Malaysians, including crew, and 27 Australians.

The International Air Transport Association on July 21 called the probe’s slow progress an “outrage to human decency.”

“The bodies of the victims must be returned to their grieving loved ones in a respectful manner,” IATA’s Director General Tony Tyler said in a statement. “For over four days we witnessed appalling sights from the crash scene. Governments must set aside their differences and treat the victims and their families with the dignity they deserve -- and this includes urgently securing the site.”

Crash Site

The smell of decaying bodies hovered over the crash site littered with burnt fuselage parts, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) south from Kharkiv. The perimeter was still protected by rebel gunmen yesterday as international inspectors collected evidence for the investigation.

Control of the debris is emerging as a central issue in the aftermath of the tragedy. Investigators have said that a missile strike would leave telltale clues, which could help identify the weapon.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe noted some differences when observing the Boeing Co. 777’s fuselage compared with the first time its team saw the wreckage, Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the delegation, told reporters yesterday without elaborating.

One image of a heavily perforated piece of fuselage that appears to come from the plane’s cockpit suggests damage from a ground-fired warhead, analysts at IHS Jane’s said yesterday.

“The punctures seen in the photograph are relatively uniform in size,” said Reed Foster, manager, military capabilities at IHS Jane’s. “This would potentially be consistent with a fragmentation-type warhead employed upon a number of modern and legacy surface-to-air missile systems.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE