By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
The battle for control at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 entered a new chapter Sunday focused on the fate of victims’ bodies, and U.S. and British leaders pointed fingers at Russia for nurturing the separatists suspected of bringing down the airliner.
“There’s a buildup of extraordinary circumstantial evidence,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said, suggesting for the first time that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have supplied pro-Russia militants with the weapon that brought down the Malaysian jet with 298 people aboard.
In the eastern Ukrainian town of Torez, pro-Russia separatists, observed by a handful of journalists and monitors, guarded refrigerated train cars filled with scores of body bags that contained the remains of victims brought from the crash site at Grabovo, 13 miles away.
But the train was at a standstill because separatist leaders and the Ukrainian government hadn’t yet worked out a deal for its departure time and destination.
Also Sunday, the plane’s flight recorder, or black box, was apparently found but was being held by the separatists, and international investigators continued to be stymied in their efforts to visit the disaster site.
Remarks by Kerry and British Prime Minister David Cameron reflected rising frustration over Moscow’s support of the militants, who want eastern Ukraine to secede and become part of Russia, and over how the crash site is being handled by the separatists.
“The Russians have armed the separatists, trained the separatists, support the separatists, and have to date, not publicly called on the separatists to stand down,” Kerry said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” one of five Sunday morning talk shows on which he appeared. “We need Russia to become part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
Cameron had perhaps even stronger words, writing in the Sunday Times that if it’s proved that pro-Russia separatists fired the missile that brought down the Malaysian jet, “we must be clear what it means: This is a direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias, and training and arming them.”
In eastern Ukraine, government emergency workers had begun gathering the bodies Saturday. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were present, but said they could do little as the workers were forced to turn over the body bags to trucks overseen by armed separatists. By Sunday morning, the workers and the bodies were gone, transferred to the railway station deep in southeastern Ukraine.
“We have not yet received an opportunity to dispatch the train,” Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who is overseeing the post-crash efforts for the Ukrainian government, told reporters in Kiev on Sunday afternoon. He said the train contained 192 bodies, with eight additional sets of partial remains. The search continued for other bodies, and as of late Sunday night, as many as two dozen more had been found and were being brought to the train station.
Separatist leader Oleksandr Boroday, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said he would wait for inspectors from the International Civil Aviation Organization before moving the train but did not commit to any timetable.
Families remained on tenterhooks for news about the bodies. Ukraine has said it is preparing to host these families from around the world but can’t make arrangements yet because it doesn’t know where the train will end up. The northeastern town of Kharkiv — the closest big city under government control — would be the likeliest option, but the separatists may push for Donetsk, a city they control. The Ukrainian government would strongly object to a transfer to Donetsk.
The train issue speaks to the trickiness of a site that is both a crash scene and a war zone. It’s possible that the bodies could be caught in a political tug of war between Ukrainian government officials and the separatists, who could be seeking concessions, such an unconditional suspension of violence in the wake of major territorial losses.
Asked whether he thought the bodies could be safely removed given the leverage they provided the separatists, Dutch diplomat Kees van Baar, who is overseeing the technical aspects of the post-crash effort, said, “I think right now there is hope.”
U.S. and British leaders sounded less optimistic about the overall situation. Kerry told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that “what’s happening (at the crash site) is grotesque” and called the area “seriously compromised.” He added that the United States continued to amass data that suggested that Putin and Russia had supplied the SA-11 missile launcher suspected of bringing down the Malaysian jet.
Appearing on CNN, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was direct in her remarks. “Putin, you have to man up,” she said of his alleged relationship with the separatists.
Even with the added pressure, Kerry deflected questions about whether the Obama administration would punish Moscow for its suspected role in the tragedy. He said that although the administration would consider more penalties, it was looking to Europe to get tougher with the Russians.
Cameron also took aim at neighboring nations. “For too long there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine,” he wrote. “It is time to make our power, influence and resources count. (W)e sometimes behave as if we need Russia more than Russia needs us.”
Some European nations such as Germany, more reliant on Russian oil than the United States, have been less willing to impose sanctions.
Cameron’s new defense minister, Michael Fallon, has also said Putin should “get out” of eastern Ukraine.
Putin has so far stood his ground and denied any involvement with the separatists, but experts believe the new pressure could soon force a response.
More immediately, investigators are looking simply to get to the crash site. Ukraine is putting together a team that includes representatives from affected countries as well as the International Civil Aviation Organization and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. But until a cease-fire or a security zone can be established, it’s unlikely they would go in. A team of more than a dozen Malaysian crash investigators is entering its third day waiting in Kiev hotels for a go-ahead to visit the site.
Ukraine’s Groysman cautioned any group against entering on its own until a deal could be worked out with paramilitary groups. “Guarantees of security of territory controlled by the separatists cannot be made,” he said.
Time may be running short. About 200 Ukrainian emergency workers and 800 volunteers are at the sprawling site, but they are thought to be ill-equipped. On Sunday near Donetsk, a tractor driven by separatists lifted a large piece of aircraft, one of many instances that has investigators worried that the militants will soon strip the site of any forensic value.
Chief monitor Ertugrul Apakan said that access for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the only major outside group at the site, had improved since Friday, but was still far from optimal. “We need full access to the crash site,” he said.
At least one issue, however, seemed to be approaching a resolution. The mystery over the whereabouts of the black box of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was cleared up when video surfaced of separatist emergency workers apparently coming upon the device in a field in eastern Ukraine. The video, taken Friday, showed one worker calling out “flight recorder” in Russian and appearing to hold the orange-colored device, one of two on the aircraft to log flight information and cockpit sounds.
Still, because flight recorders are generally used to determine potential missteps or malfunctions ahead of a crash, they may be of limited use in an instance in which a missile is believed to have brought down a plane.
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Vienna contributed to this report.
AFP Photo/Dominique Faget
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