The Ukrainian government says 219 bodies have been recovered from the site where a Malaysian airliner crashed after being shot down on Thursday, as well as what they believe are parts of 28 additional bodies. That would leave 51 of the people on the plane still unaccounted for.
Also, a European delegation was given access to the bodies and the crash site in a rebel-held area of eastern Ukraine.
There are still conflicting reports over whether pro-Russian rebels or Ukrainian officials have control over the collected remains. According to some sources, rebels took possession of many of them following their collection by personnel from Ukraine’s Emergencies Ministry, who were granted access to the site by the separatists.
According to some reports, many of the bodies are currently in three refrigerated railway cars in the town of Torez, not far from the crash site. Quoting a senior official of the authorities in Kyiv, Ukrainian media are reporting that negotiations are currently underway to have the bodies transported to territory under Ukrainian government control, possibly to the city of Kharkiv.
It is a gruesome and sad scene in a Ukrainian farm field, said Michael Bociurkiw of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who spoke to reporters in Kyiv via mobile phone.
"We are looking right now at engine parts and parts of the fuselage. It appears to me that this could be the main section, the mid-section, of the aircraft. And we are also seeing emergency workers picking over a very difficult patch of impact, where there is a lot of debris and body parts and banged up bodies put together.”
Earlier, Bociurkiw and his 21-member team had been allowed to see several refrigerated railroad cars parked at a rural train station. He reported that he saw many body bags in the rail cars, but his team could not make its own count.
“Because of the conditions of the train, you need professional protective equipment to go in there. The stench was absolutely overwhelming. I do not want to be too gruesome, but it is a very, very, very difficult scene to watch.”
The OSCE officials are not disaster investigators. They are in rebel-held eastern Ukraine on a human rights mission. But they are the only independent observers in the region, and he said they are trying to document what they can about the disaster.
Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Borodai said the bodies recovered from the crash site would remain in refrigerated train cars in the rebel-held town of Torez, 15 kilometers from the site, until the arrival of an international aviation delegation.
‘‘The bodies will go nowhere until experts arrive,’’ Borodai said, speaking in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.
Borodai also said Sunday the insurgents are holding the flight data recorders with key information from the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet.
He said the so-called black boxes will be handed over to the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Kerry: Russian involvement clear
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Sunday demanded Russia take responsibility for actions of allied separatists suspected of shooting down the passenger plane and expressed disgust over the rebels' "grotesque" mishandling of victims' bodies at the crash site.
While stopping short of placing direct blame on Moscow for the shootdown, Kerry articulated the most pointed and detailed U.S. accusations so far that Russia provided pro-Moscow insurgents with the sophisticated anti-aircraft systems used to down the aircraft.
Kerry said the United States intercepted conversations about the transfer to separatists of the Russian radar-guided SA-11 missile system it blames for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
"It's pretty clear that this is a system that was transferred from Russia,'' Kerry said in an interview on CNN.
U.S. officials said American intelligence reports indicated Russia had moved multiple SA-11 antiaircraft systems over the border with other military equipment.
"There's [an] enormous amount of evidence, even more evidence [than] I just documented, that points to the involvement of Russia in providing these systems, training the people on them,'' Kerry said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Moscow denies involvement and has accused the Ukrainian military in the shootdown that killed 298 people.
Worshippers at church services across the Netherlands on Sunday prayed for the victims of the Ukraine air disaster and their next of kin, as anger built over the separatist rebels' hindering of the investigation into the downed flight.
Amid the grieving, Prime Minister Mark Rutte is pushing for Russian President Vladimir Putin to use his influence over the rebels in eastern Ukraine to ensure a full investigation into the tragedy that killed 298 passengers and crew, including 193 Dutch citizens.
Rutte called Putin Saturday and had what he described as "an extremely intense telephone conversation" with the Russian president in which he urged him to exert his influence over the rebels and ensure there is a thorough, independent international investigation.
Ukraine and the separatists accuse each other of firing a surface-to-air missile Thursday at Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur some 10,000 meters above the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. Both deny shooting down the plane.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Sunday the crash site is "absolutely chaotic."
"I summoned the Russian trade minister to a meeting and I made crystal clear my concerns and dissatisfaction with the way this has been handled. Russian-controlled territory, Russian-backed rebels, quite likely a Russian-supplied weapon - Russia can't wash its hands of this," he said.
Abbot said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he fears tampering with the evidence will continue because there is "no one in authority on the ground."
"My fear is that Russia will say the right thing, but that on the ground interference with the site, interference with investigators, interference with the dignified treatment of the bodies will continue. That's my fear," he said.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said reports that bodies and debris have been removed from the unsecured site and that evidence has been tampered with is "an affront to all those who lost loved ones and to the dignity the victims deserve."
Psaki said the European monitors had access to the crash site Saturday for less than three hours and were allowed on the site for only 75 minutes on Friday.
Ukraine says it has "compelling evidence" pro-Russian rebels used a high-tech missile launcher, and with Russian training to shoot down the plane.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, writing in London's The Sunday Times newspaper, says if this is the case, it is a direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state and training and arming thuggish militias.
Cameron says too many European countries have been reluctant to face up to what is happening in eastern Ukraine. He writes that the West must change its approach to Russia and make Western power, influence and resources count.
France, Britain and Germany warned Russia Sunday it could face further economic sanctions if it does not force the rebels to allow investigators unfettered access to the crash site. The rebels so far have allowed only limited access for short periods of time.
European ministers should be ready to announce a fresh round of sanctions against Russia at a meeting of the European Union's Foreign Affairs Council, said a statement from Cameron's office, issued after calls with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"They agreed that the EU must reconsider its approach to Russia and that foreign ministers should be ready to impose further sanctions on Russia when they meet on Tuesday," the statement said.
VOA's Al Pessin reported from Kyiv; other information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.