Three days after they were accused of shooting down the Malaysia Airlines jet that scorched the wheatfields outside Donetsk, pro-Russian rebels stood accused last night of failing to provide full access to the scene to international observers, tampering with crucial evidence and even removing the bodies of those killed.
"We have now had the possibility to see a bit more of this rather large scene," said Alexander Hug, a senior official with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). "We have observed the situation here as it was presented to us."
Officials who have been visiting the scene where the Boeing 777 was brought down on Thursday afternoon said efforts to recover corpses, scattered among the fields of summer wheat and sunflowers was ongoing. Yet with the heavily armed pro-Russian rebels taking the lead in the operation, the work was slow and disorganised.
The Dutch government, whose citizens made up more than half the passengers on the flight, said it was "furious" at the manhandling of corpses strewn for miles over open country, and asked the Ukrainian President for help to bring "our people" home.
Reports said dozens of the remains of MH17's passengers and crew lay in body bags by the side of the road, in summer temperatures that crept past 31C. "Some of the body bags are open and the damage to the corpses is very, very bad," said the OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw. "It is very difficult to look at." He said on Friday the officials were hampered even more, and that some of the rebels guarding the site may have been drunk. Yesterday, gunmen formed a line to separate the 24-strong team of observers from getting to parts of some of the fields. At a briefing last night, Mr Bociurkiw said the task to recover the bodies over an area that spread six miles required "hundreds and hundreds" of people, not dozens.
President Petro Poroshenko claimed the actions of the armed rebels amounted to interference. "We will not tolerate interference with the work of the commission," he said. In Kiev, the Ukrainian security council said staff of the Emergencies Ministry had found 186 bodies and had checked some seven square miles of the vast crash site. But the workers were not free to conduct a normal investigation, the ministry said.
"The fighters have let the Emergencies Ministry workers in there, but they are not allowing them to take anything from the area," a Ukraine Security Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said. "The fighters are taking away all that has been found."
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry spoke with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, last night, urging Russia to take "immediate and clear actions to reduce tensions" and raising concerns over the denial of "proper access" to the crash site.
Malaysia, whose national airline has been battered by its second major disaster this year, said it was "inhumane" to bar access to the site around the village of Hrabove, near Donetsk. World leaders have called for a rapid investigation into Thursday's disaster, which could mark a pivotal moment in deteriorating relations between Russia and the West. The US and other powers said a surface-to-air missile appeared to have been fired from rebel-held territory.
Ukraine has said Russia played a decisive role in shooting down the plane, and called on Moscow to hand over what it said was the Russian crew of the SA-11 radar-guided missile system. The pro-Russian rebels, however, say they have not touched the site and blame the Ukrainian authorities for not allowing other experts access to the site.
But away from the allegations and counter-allegations being levelled, the families of those who were on board the plane making its way from Schiphol airport in Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur are confronting the further horror of not knowing whether their loved ones' remains will be properly identified or found.
What is certainly true is that the pro-Russian rebels, allegedly financed and armed by Moscow, have control of the area. Driving to Donetsk from the city of Dnipropetrovsk yesterday, The IoS was obliged to pass through at least six checkpoints. At one checkpoint, the fighters refused permission to pass, forcing a lengthy detour through fields.
The Ukrainian government in Kiev said on Saturday that 39 bodies had been recovered from the site so far and taken to Donetsk. In a statement, the government claimed that the rebels were also "seeking large transports to carry away plane fragments to Russia". "The terrorists, with the help of Russia, are trying to destroy evidence of international crimes," the government said.
In claims that could not be verified last night, Ukrainian authorities alleged that cash and credit cards had been stolen from the passengers, prompting some Dutch banks to take what were described as "preventative measures".
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 clean-up before the conditions of the bodies worsened significantly. "We are looking at security on the perimeter of the crash site, looking at the status in the condition of the bodies, the status in the condition of the debris, and also personal belongings," he said.
"There's a grandmother. A body landed right in her bed. She says, 'Please take this body away.' But we cannot tamper with the site. We reserve the right, if the delay continues to begin the process of taking away the bodies. We ask the Russian Federation to help us with this problem and send their experts." In a phone call with UN chief Ban Ki-Moon on Saturday, President Poroshenko called for separatists to be officially labelled terrorist.
The concerns raised by Ukraine were echoed by the authorities in Malaysia. "The integrity of the site has been compromised, and there are indications that vital evidence has not been preserved in place," the Malaysian Transport Minister, Liow Tiong Lai, said at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur. He called for immediate access for Malaysia's team at the site. Russia also called on both Ukraine and the rebels to allow experts have access to the site.
Additional reporting by Ralph Blackburn
The step-grandmother of both Malaysia's Prime Minister and Defence Minister was among those killed in the downing of flight MH17. Siti Amirah, 83, was described as a "kind-hearted, beautiful woman" by a family spokeswoman.
According to figures released by Malaysia Airlines yesterday, 192 of the dead were Dutch, 44 were Malaysian, 27 Australian, 12 Indonesian, 10 British, four German, four Belgian, and three Filipino. There was one Canadian and one New Zealander.
Malaysia was also mourning the loss of the actress Shuba Jaya, who was killed with her Dutch husband, Paul Goes, and their baby daughter Kaela. They had been visiting the Netherlands to show the child to Mr Goes's parents.
In the Netherlands, people were trying to come to terms with the tragedy. Twenty-two Dutch children have been confirmed as among the dead, including pupils at De Klimroos School in Kortendijk, Roosendaal.
A teacher at the school, Bart Lambregts, was also on the flight with his girlfriend Astrid Hornikx. Andre Verstijlen, a friend, said Mr Lambregts had been rehearsing his part in an opera. "They were very open, real life-enjoyers," Mr Verstijlen told Omroep Brabant television.
"That they are no longer with us is a big loss for the cultural sector."
Australia's dead included a family of five, Hans van den Hende, Shaliza Dewa and their children Piers, 15, Marnix, 12, and Margaux, eight, who lived near Melbourne. Nick Norris, from Perth, died with his three grandchildren, Mo, 12, Evie, 10 and Otis, 8. Novelist Liam Davison, 57, and his wife, Frankie, 54, also perished.
Tony Abbott, Australia's Prime Minister, warned that he may not allow the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, to come to the G20 summit in Brisbane in November unless Moscow co-operates fully with the investigation.
About 50 ex-classmates of a flight attendant who was aboard MH17, Nur Shazana Mohamed Salleh, met at a mosque yesterday near Kuala Lumpur to pay respects. "From the ages of 13 to 17, we did everything together," said the organiser, who gave her name as Nik. "We're all like sisters. May God bless her and others on the plane."
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