Ukraine, rebels agree to remove crash site bodies

July 20, 2014

HRABOVE, Ukraine (AP) — The Ukraine government and the pro-Russia separatists who control the site of the Malaysian plane crash have reached a preliminary agreement to remove the bodies of the victims from the site, a senior Ukrainian official said.

News reports of how the bodies have been decaying for days in the summer sun have ignited outrage worldwide, especially from the Netherlands, home to over half the 298 victims.

Ukraine's emergency officials said Sunday that 196 bodies have been recovered in an operation involving nearly 300 volunteers and rebels.

Ukraine and the separatists accuse each other of firing a surface-to-air missile Thursday at Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur some 33,000 feet (10,000 meters) above the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. Both deny the charge.

The U.S. has pointed blame at the separatists, saying Washington believes the jetliner was probably downed by an SA-11 missile from rebel-held territory and "we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel."

The latest U.S. intelligence assessment suggests that more than one missile system was given to the separatists by the Russians in the last week or so. But both Russia and the rebels vehemently deny any role in downing the plane.

Despite calls by world leaders for an independent, international investigation into the plane's downing, armed separatists limited observers' access to the crash site on Friday and Saturday.

"We have to be very careful," said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the 24 international monitors. "We are unarmed civilians, so we are not in a position to argue with people with heavy arms."

Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman said the "preliminary" accord would let Ukrainian emergency services and international observers take the bodies from the crash site to a safe place. He did not reveal where that would be.

The U.S. State Department described the rebels' refusal to give monitors a full access to the site "an affront to all those who lost loved ones and to the dignity the victims deserve."

Despite the restrictions seen by journalists and observers at the crash site, separatist leader Alexander Borodai insisted the rebels have not in any way interfered with the work of observers.

The Dutch led the way in outrage over how the victims' bodies were being treated.

"The news we got today of the bodies being dragged around, of the site not being treated properly, has really created a shock in the Netherlands," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told the Ukrainian president in Kiev on Saturday. "People are angry, are furious at what they hear."

Timmermans demanded that the culprits be found.

"Once we have the proof, we will not stop until the people are brought to justice," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed Saturday in a phone call that an independent commission led by the International Civil Aviation Organization should be granted swift access to the crash site.

Three days after the plane crash, the whereabouts of the black boxes are still unknown, Groisman said.


Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.