Access to Malaysia Airlines crash site nearly unfettered; fighting rages nearby
HRABOVE, Ukraine — Pro-Russian rebels at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 have granted monitors and experts nearly “unfettered access” to wreckage Monday, according to a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
“Today we have three Dutch forensics experts with us, and they’re getting pretty much unfettered access,” Michael Bociurkiw said.
The rebels even provided some perimeter security to keep journalists at bay, creating a “dome of tranquility” for the OSCE monitors, Dutch forensic experts and a handful of Ukrainian aviation experts now at the scene, Bociurkiw said separately in a briefing for reporters hosted by the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center.On Sunday, Bociurkiw had said access to the site had improved after an initial welcome by rebels that he had described as hostile.
Still, it remains difficult to get to the site, and fighting between rebels and government forces in Donetsk could have a significant impact on the investigation, he said.
Ukrainian officials and rebel forces reported fighting around the train station in Donetsk on Monday, with city officials reporting damage to a residential building near the train station and a nearby market catching fire after it was shelled. The train station, however, remained in operation, the city officials said.
With air service out, an interruption in train service could hinder the ability of investigators to get into and out of the site, Bociurkiw said.
“That’s very crucial, because it’s the only remaining transport link between here and really the outside world.”
It could also affect efforts to transport the remains of the 298 people who died when Flight 17 plummeted to the ground — the apparent victims of a surface-to-air missile strike that U.S. officials have said appeared to be launched from rebel-held territory near the Russian border.
As of Monday, workers had recovered 282 bodies, with 251 stored in refrigerated train cars near the crash site.
Dutch forensics experts were “more or less” satisfied with how the bodies were being stored,” Bociurkiw said.
It was unclear Monday when the train would depart, or where it would head. Ukrainian government officials have said the bodies will eventually be taken to Amsterdam. Most of those who died in the crash were Dutch.
Bociurkiw had no information about the status of a team of international crash experts staging in Kharkiv to inspect the debris.
Earlier, the Ukrainian government issued a news release saying the experts had reviewed photos of the crash scene.
Another team from the Netherlands remains in Kiev, according to the Dutch Foreign Ministry.
‘An outrage made in Moscow’
Meanwhile, intelligence analysts were working furiously to determine whether Russian officials had any direct involvement in the downing of the jetliner — an accusation Moscow has strongly denied.
U.S. analysts are examining phone intercepts, social media posts and information gathered on the ground to see what role, if any, Russian officials may have played, according to two U.S. officials directly familiar with the latest assessment who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the situation.
“We are trying to determine if they manned it, advised, or pulled the trigger,” one of the officials said.
Secretary of State John Kerry said there’s no shortage of evidence that pro-Russian rebels shot down the jet.There’s video of a launcher with one surface-to-air missile missing, imagery showing the firing and intercepted calls with rebels claiming credit for the strike, Kerry said.
“We know from intercepts … that those are in fact the voices of separatists,” he said Sunday. “And now we have a video showing a launcher moving back through a particular area there out into Russia with at least one missing missile on it.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron didn’t mince words either on who was to blame. In an op-ed in The Sunday Times, he called the plane crash and its aftermath “an outrage made in Moscow.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin fired back with a video statement posted on the Kremlin’s official website early Monday, arguing that his country has been pushing for peace in Ukraine.
“We have repeatedly called on all parties to immediately stop the bloodshed and to sit down at the negotiating table. We can confidently say that if June 28 fighting in eastern Ukraine did not resume, this tragedy most likely would not have happened,” he said. “However, no one should have the right to use this tragedy to achieve selfish political objectives. Such events should not divide but unite people.”
He stressed that safety must be guaranteed for international experts investigating the crash.
“We must do everything to ensure their work has full and absolute security (and) ensure necessary humanitarian corridors are provided,” Putin said.
Pro-Russian rebels have also denied responsibility for the shootdown.
In an interview with Cuomo, the self-declared rebel Prime Minister in Donetsk, Alexander Borodai, said he believed Ukrainian forces either shot the plane down with a surface-to-air missile or one of its own fighter jets.
“We didn’t have motives and desire to do that, and it is obvious that Ukrainians have them,” he said. “I can’t say about desire, but motive is obvious that the crash of this plane was beneficial to them.”
Black boxes found?
Borodai also told Cuomo that he believes rebels have retrieved the jet’s black boxes, but that he couldn’t say for sure because he is not a technical expert.
Earlier, Borodai said the devices are under guard in the region. They will not be given to Ukrainian officials, he said.
Reuters distributed video Sunday of what appeared to be an inflight recorder found by a worker in a field. The agency labeled the video, shot Friday, as showing one of the two flight data recorders from Flight 17.
Some Malaysian investigators flew to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev on Saturday. But Malaysia’s official news agency said they were still negotiating with rebels over access for their team.
Law enforcement officials from the Netherlands, the United States and Australia will help with the investigation led by the Ukrainian government.
Two FBI agents have arrived in Kiev, a senior U.S. law enforcement official said. An investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board was also there.