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UPDATE: Monitors attempt to secure Ukraine plane crash site

Saturday, July 19, 2014 | 5:01 p.m. CDT; updated 11:20 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2014
A piece of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 lies in the grass near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, on Saturday. World leaders demanded Friday that pro-Russia rebels who control the eastern Ukraine crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 give immediate, unfettered access to independent investigators to determine who shot down the plane.

HRABOVE, Ukraine — International monitors moved gingerly Saturday through fields reeking of the decomposing corpses of the victims of a Malaysian airliner shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine, trying to secure the sprawling site in hopes that a credible investigation of the disaster can be conducted.

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The Thursday crash that killed all 298 people aboard the plane has intensified already-high animosity on all sides of the conflict.

The Ukrainian government and separatist rebels accuse each other of shooting down the Boeing 777 with a surface-to-air missile. The crash site is near the Russian border, and some believe the country is connected to the attack, either because of its alleged support of the insurgents or perhaps firing the missile itself.

The latest U.S. intelligence assessment suggests more than one missile system was provided to the separatists by the Russians in the last week or so, a U.S. official said Saturday.

Although there is not 100 percent certainty, the official told The Associated Press, "more and more there is the general belief that the systems were provided by the Russians."

The official said it's not entirely clear if the separatists just received the missile systems or if they had them for a short time and only in recent days were trained or able to operate them. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in a phone call Saturday that the sides should enter talks and stop fighting, according to a Kremlin statement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. counterpart Secretary of State John Kerry took a similar view, a Foreign Ministry statement said.

At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Friday, the U.S. said Washington believes the jetliner likely was downed by a separatist SA-11 missile and "we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel."

The government in Kiev said militia have removed 38 bodies from the crash site and have taken them to the rebel-held city of Donetsk. It said the bodies were transported with the assistance of specialists with distinct Russian accents.

The rebels are also "seeking large transports to carry away plane fragments to Russia," the Ukrainian government said Saturday.

In Donetsk, separatist leader Alexander Borodai denied that any bodies had been transferred or that the rebels had in any way interfered with the work of observers. He said he encouraged the involvement of the international community in assisting with the cleanup before the conditions of the bodies worsens significantly.

Ukraine called on Moscow to insist that the pro-Russia rebels grant international experts the ability to conduct a thorough, impartial investigation into the downing of the plane — echoing a demand that President Barack Obama issued a day earlier from Washington.

On Saturday, in the village of Hrabove, one passenger's body was seen still strapped into an airline seat with bare toes peeking out under long jeans. Another body was flung face-up into a field of blue flowers.

Treatment of the victims' remains, left under the hot summer sun punctuated by bursts of rainfall, has provoked outrage and distress.

"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. "People are angry, are furious at what they hear."

Timmermans demanded the culprits be found.

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

Merkel and Putin agreed on Saturday that an independent, international commission led by the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, should be granted swift access to the crash site, German government spokesman Georg Streiter and the Kremlin said.

The commission should examine the circumstances of the crash and recover the victims, said Streiter, adding that Merkel urged Putin to use his influence over the separatists to make that happen.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a video statement the international community is demanding separatists provide free access to the crash site, that the victims' bodies be properly recovered and the evidence secured.

"Russia has a key role to play in that through its influence on the separatists and the world's eyes will be on Russia to see that she delivers on her obligations over the next few hours," he said.

In the Netherlands, forensic teams fanned out across the country Saturday to collect material, including DNA samples, which will help positively identify the remains of the 192 Dutch victims.

Police said in a tweet that 40 pairs of detectives from the National Forensic Investigations Team would be visiting victims' relatives over the coming days.

The location of the black boxes remains a mystery and the separatist leadership remained adamant Saturday that it hadn't located them.

A spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's monitoring mission in Ukraine, which has a 24-member delegation that was given limited access to the crash site, also said he had received no information on their whereabouts.

Aviation experts say, however, not to expect too much from the flight data and cockpit voice recorders in understanding how Flight 17 was brought down.

The most useful evidence that's likely to come from the crash scene is whether missile pieces can be found in the trail of debris that came down as the plane exploded, said John Goglia, a U.S. aviation safety expert and former National Transportation Safety Board member.

The operation of Flight 17 doesn't appear to be an issue, he said.

Obama called the downing of the plane "a global tragedy."

"An Asian airliner was destroyed in European skies filled with citizens from many countries, so there has to be a credible international investigation into what happened," he said.

Malaysia Airlines, meanwhile, said Saturday it has no immediate plans to fly victims' relatives to visit the crash site in Ukraine because of security concerns.

A spokesman for the airline says next of kin are being cared for in Amsterdam while a team from the carrier, including security officials, was in Ukraine assessing the situation.

In the Netherlands, travelers flying out of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport laid flowers and signed a condolence book before boarding their flights Saturday, including those on the latest Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to Kuala Lumpur.


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