DCSIMG

Cameron urges Putin to ensure release of bodies

An armed pro-Russian separatist gestures as he blocks the way to the crash site. Picture: AFP/Getty

An armed pro-Russian separatist gestures as he blocks the way to the crash site. Picture: AFP/Getty

  • by CHRIS MARSHALL
 

DAVID Cameron has told Russian president Vladimir Putin to intervene so that the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines disaster can be repatriated and relatives can hold funerals for their loved ones.

The bodies of nearly 200 passengers recovered from the Malaysia Airlines crash scene were last night in the hands of Russian-backed rebels widely thought to be responsible for the disaster.

The Prime Minister, who was left frustrated by Mr Putin’s refusal to speak to him until yesterday, said he had “made clear” his demands that the Russian leader must ensure access to the MH17 crash site in the phone call, which came as the European Union looked set to impose tougher sanctions on Russia over its support for rebels in Ukraine.

Armed men were reported to have forced emergency workers to hand over the bodies before loading them on to refrigerated train carriages to be transported to a near-deserted station in the city of Torez, around 40 miles from Donetsk.

There was also uncertainty over what would happen to the flight’s black boxes after the separatists’ leader said they were under rebel control.

Last night, investigators from the UN aviation agency who arrived in Ukraine to help probe the crash were unable to reach the site because of safety concerns, according to a senior agency source said.

The developments came as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Russia risked becoming an international “pariah”, while Mr Cameron said the downing of the plane had been a direct result of Russia backing “thuggish militias” in its attempts to “destabilise a sovereign state”.

Russia was yesterday accused of attempting to carry out a cover-up after the Ukrainian security services released what they said was an intercepted phone conversation in which a militia leader was heard telling his men that Moscow wanted the black box recorders recovered.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry said evidence indicated a Russian missile had been used to shoot down flight MH17.

At the biggest crash site near the village of Grabove, where emergency workers had bagged dozens of bodies on Saturday, all victims had been removed yesterday morning.

Empty, bloodstained stretchers that had been used to carry the bodies lay by the road, and rescue workers used a crane to move wreckage to reach human remains trapped beneath.

Armed pro-Russian separatists, many with their faces covered, continued to stand guard.

As Ukraine accused separatist rebels of hiding evidence relating to Thursday’s downing of the airliner over the east of the country with the loss of 298 lives, a pro-Russian separatist leader said items thought to be the stricken Boeing’s black boxes were now in rebel hands.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s security council, Andriy Lysenko, accused the rebels of a cover-up. “The terrorists are doing everything to hide the evidence of the involvement of Russian missiles in the shooting down of that airliner,” he told a news conference in Kiev.

He said the rebels had taken debris and bodies from the crash site in trucks, tampering with a scene that investigators need to be secure to have a chance of determining what, and who, caused the plane to plunge into the steppe.

With Western anger intensifying over the apparently disrespectful treatment of the bodies by the rebels controlling the widely spread crash sites, nearly 200 corpses were taken to be stored on a refrigerated train at Torez, nine miles away.

Officials from the OSCE, the European security body, were able to inspect some of the railway wagons. It was not clear if the rebels and the Ukrainian government were working together or at odds with each other over what to do with the bodies.

Russian news agencies said the bodies were heading to the rebel stronghold of Donetsk. Ukrainian officials say they expect to have the bodies eventually delivered to government-held city of Kharkiv, but it is unclear if the rebels will agree to do so.

The US state department described the rebels’ refusal to give monitors full access to the site “an affront to all those who lost loved ones and to the dignity the victims deserve”.

Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans spoke of his country’s outrage at how the bodies had been treated. Of the 298 victims, 192 were Dutch.

“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,” he said.

“People are angry, are furious at what they hear.”

Mr 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.

Moscow denies involvement in shooting down the airliner and has blamed the Ukrainian military. But Washington and its allies point the finger at the pro-Russian separatists who have Moscow’s backing.

Mr Kerry said the United States had seen supplies moving into Ukraine from Russia in the last month, including a 150-vehicle convoy of armoured personnel carriers, tanks and rocket launchers given to the separatists.

The US had intercepted conversations about the transfer to separatists of the Russian radar-guided SA11 missile system it blames for the downing of the Boeing 777, he said.

“It’s pretty clear that this is a system that was transferred from Russia,” Mr Kerry.

Ukrainian officials fear that the black boxes, which could offer an insight into the last moments of the flight, may be handed over to Russia or tampered with by the rebels.

“Some items, presumably the black boxes, were found, and they have been delivered to Donetsk and they are under our control,” Aleksander Borodai, prime minister of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic, told a news conference. “We brought to Donetsk some technical items which could be the black boxes.”

ANALYSIS

Keir Giles: Propaganda war takes priority over the truth for Ukraine’s separatists

While international condemnation of Russia mounts over the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, the likelihood of a full and proper investigation seems more and more distant.

Relatives, officials and the ordinary public cannot understand why the Russian-backed separatists that control the crash site are not allowing access to international investigators, and worse, are removing vital evidence from the scene. As with any air crash investigation, establishing a true and objective picture of what happened – and in what sequence – can depend on reconstructing the crashed aircraft down to the tiniest detail. This, obviously, depends on full access by trained investigators. But in the case of MH17, the integrity of the crash site was compromised from the very beginning. Still worse, some of the searching for evidence and recovery of bodies carried out by gunmen and unqualified local volunteers has appeared to journalists to be indistinguishable from looting.

Every day that the separatists refuse full and unrestricted access to international investigators erodes the credibility of the subsequent investigation still further.

The treatment of the bodies in particular has aroused alarm and even disgust in international observers – including seasoned journalists who are no stranger to war zones and disasters. Multiple incidents show a casual disregard for the dignity of the dead, as well as for the forensic integrity of their bodies. Their callous treatment by the hardened gunmen managing the crash scene causes even more unimaginable distress to the families of the victims. And while the reason for removing some of the bodies on a refrigerated train – protection from wild animals and slowing decomposition – may be genuine, the bodies too are evidence.

All this prevents an objective assessment of what and who caused the crash. But if we leave aside the explanation of simple chaos, this may be precisely what the separatists, and at one remove the Kremlin, want.

If there is no formal finding implicating the Russia-backed separatists beyond reasonable doubt, this will allow Russia to maintain the narrative that anybody but Russia is to blame.

Words of protest from David Cameron or other Western leaders will have little impact in Moscow, and still less on local separatist leaders.

What is important in their perspective is not the crash, but the propaganda war over Ukraine.

The real truth about how Flight MH17 was downed is one of the new front lines of confrontation with the West.

• A former pilot and aviation correspondent, Keir Giles is an Associate Fellow of the Russia programme at Chatham House in London, and director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre in Oxford.

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