Ukrainian officials say the search for bodies has ended at the site where a Malaysia Airlines plane came down, and all the bodies, or fragments of them, have been found. The officials say there is agreement with Russian-backed rebels who control the area to move the bodies by rail from the rebel-held city of Torez to government-controlled Kharkiv Monday night, where they will then be flown to Amsterdam for identification.
A senior separatist leader, Aleksander Borodai, handed over two black boxes from the downed airliner downed to Malaysian experts in the city of Donetsk in the early hours of Tuesday.
“Here they are, the black boxes,” Borodai told a room packed with journalists at the headquarters of his self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic as an armed rebel placed the boxes on a desk.
Both sides then signed a document, which Borodai said was a protocol to finalize the procedure after lengthy talks with the Malaysians.
“I can see that the black boxes are intact, although a bit damaged. In good condition,” Colonel Mohamed Sakri of Malaysian National Security Council said in extending his thanks to “His Excellency Mr. Borodai” for passing on the recorders.
The head of the Ukrainian investigation commission, Deputy Prime Minister Volodimir Groysman, said 282 bodies have been recovered, along with fragments of 16 others. They were placed in refrigerated railroad cars in Torez during several days of negotiations about where they would be sent and when.
The breakthrough appears to be related to agreement that the bodies will be flown to Amsterdam and that Dutch experts, rather than Ukrainians, will lead the investigation. Three forensic investigators from the Netherlands finally reached the remote crash site on Monday, four days after the plane was allegedly shot down by separatist fighters. The investigators were allowed to see inside the rail cars and to look around several areas where pieces of the plane came down.
They are working with a human rights delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that diverted to the crash area last week and has been documenting the situation.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, in an exclusive interview Monday with CNN, lamented the “men, women and children killed so senselessly.”
He said that, along with OSCE, Ukraine and other countries had sent monitors. “What they need right now is immediate and full access to the crash site. … Every hour of postponing this date can make absolutely disastrous harm.”
“Our immediate focus is on recovering those who are lost,” Poroshenko added. “… We have to make sure the truth is out and that accountability exists.”
Dutch team arrives
In a phone call with reporters in Kyiv, OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said the experts briefly visited the rural station where the railroad cars were parked. The experts, carrying a flashlight, stepped into the three refrigerated cars containing body bags.
“They had a quick look around. And they said that they were more or less pleased with the way the body bags are stacked, and [with] the temperature under difficult conditions,” Bociurkiw said.
Bociurkiw said it took the investigators a day and a half by road to reach the area.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said three Australian diplomats and 28 investigators from four countries arrived in the government-controlled eastern city of Kharkiv Monday morning to receive the bodies and arrange their transport to Amsterdam. He said that would provide for “a more independent investigation.”
Yatsenyuk slams separatists, Russia
At a news conference, Yatsenyuk spoke angrily about the incident, describing the separatists as “drunks” and “bastards” and saying Russia is on the “dark side.”
“Together with the entire international community, we will bring to justice to everyone responsible, including the country which is behind the scene," he said.
Yatsenyuk said Russia is supplying, training and financing the separatists.
Some of the bodies and evidence were collected by locally based workers from the State Emergency Service, but other material, including the plane’s flight recorders, are believed to be in the hands of the separatists. Officials said the emergency workers are doing the best they can, but their activities are controlled by the separatists.
Deputy Prime Minister Groysman accused Russian operatives of tampering with evidence at the crash site. He also dismissed Russian claims that no missiles were fired in the area at the time the plane went down, and that a Ukrainian fighter jet may have been responsible.
He called on Russia to stop, saying “enough is enough,” but he said he does not expect Russia to cooperate now, after months of supporting the rebels and days of no help with the investigation.
Who shot plane down?
Malaysia Airlines flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur went down last Thursday with 298 people on board. Western intelligence agencies say the plane was almost certainly shot down by a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile fired from a mobile launcher parked in a rebel-controlled area. They say that their sensors detected a missile launch, and that three such systems were seen being driven back into Russia shortly after the attack.
Russia's military on Monday said it did not detect any missile launches in the area and alleged a Ukrainian fighter jet was flying "3-5 kilometers" from the Malaysian plane. Russia also denied supplying any weapons systems to the rebels.
Pro-Russian militants initially boasted online about shooting down a Ukrainian military transport plane last week, but then removed the post. And the Ukrainian government has published audio recordings it says are the voices of shocked rebels arriving on the scene and finding the remains of the civilian airliner and its passengers, and reporting the fact to Russian operatives.
Some information for this report provided by Reuters.