Ukraine accused Moscow-backed rebels on Saturday of destroying evidence and blocking access to the site where a Malaysian Airlines plane crashed after apparently being shot down with an anti-aircraft missile.
The debris of MH17 – including the remains of the 298 passengers and crew who were killed when the Boeing 777 was knocked out of the sky on Thursday – is scattered over a field of wheat and sunflowers near the town of Grabovo, in eastern Ukraine. That area is controlled by heavily armed separatists from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, a movement that seeks eventual union with Russia.
A team of monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was initially blocked from accessing the site on Saturday morning, then permitted to inspect only a small section of the crash scene, including one of the aircraft’s engines.
Reporters on the scene overheard a separatist leader telling the OSCE that the rebels were conducting their own investigation, and would inform the OSCE of the results later. Some of the rebels on the scene were described as intoxicated, with one repeatedly threatening to shoot at international media who approached.
“It looks like a war-zone here. There are lots of people with heavy arms, we’re being watched very carefully,” OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said. “Our movements are being restricted.”
Meanwhile, despite international calls for a ceasefire, fighting raged again Saturday in the rebel-held city of Lugansk, less than 100 kilometres from the crash site. Sixteen people were reported killed, and 66 injured, during gun battles in the city on Friday.
It remains unclear who is in possession of the “black box” flight recorders from MH17, which would provide crucial evidence to any investigation. The rebels initially claimed to have retrieved them, then later denied that and said they had been taken away by Ukrainian officials.
The Ukrainian government, which has called the downing of MH17 an act of “terrorism,” said the rebels were trying to destroy proof of their involvement. On Friday, the country’s interior ministry posted a video on its website showing a Buk anti-aircraft battery – capable of firing the kind of SA-11 surface-to-air missile widely suspected of bringing down MH17 – being transported by truck towards the Russian border at 4:50 a.m. that day.
“The terrorists, with the help of Russia, are trying to destroy evidence of international crimes,” the Ukrainian government said in a statement Saturday. “The terrorists have taken 38 bodies to the morgue in Donetsk,” it said, accusing people with “strong Russian accents” of threatening to conduct autopsies.
Forty-eight hours after the disaster, unrecovered bodies – as well as the personal belongings of the passengers who had been flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – remain scattered over the fields around Grabovo. The majority of the passengers were Dutch. Many were headed to vacation in Southeast Asia; at least six were delegates en route to attend the World AIDS Conference in Australia.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak confirmed via his Twitter account on Saturday that his own 83-year-old step-grandmother was among the victims of the tragedy, and the Malaysian government harshly criticized the rebels’ management of the crash site.
“The integrity of the site has been compromised, and there are indications that vital evidence has not been preserved in place. Interfering with the scene of the crash risks undermining the investigation itself,” Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told a press conference. “Any actions that prevent us from learning the truth about what happened to MH17 cannot be tolerated. Failure to stop such interference would be a betrayal of the lives that were lost.”
On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama made it clear that Washington believed the rebels had shot down MH17, and that Moscow had played a role by supplying the separatists with advanced weaponry.
“Evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile that was launched from an area that is controlled by Russian-backed separatists inside of Ukraine,” Mr. Obama told a press conference in Washington. “We know that [the separatists] are heavily armed and they are trained, and we know that that's not an accident. That is happening because of Russian support.”
Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, went even further, suggesting that the type of weaponry believed to have been used in shooting down MH17 was so sophisticated that “it is unlikely that the separatists could effectively operate the system without assistance from knowledgeable personnel, thus we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel in operating the system.”
Mr. Obama called on Mr. Putin to abandon his backing of the rebels, and to allow for a full international investigation of the disaster.
On Saturday, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, accused the U.S. of trying to use the tragedy to advance a political agenda in Ukraine.
“The statements of representatives of the US administration are evidence of a deep political aberration of Washington's perception of what is going on in Ukraine,” he said. “Despite an obvious and indisputable nature of the arguments provided by rebels and Moscow, the US administration is pushing its own agenda.”
“The White House clearly established who's guilty even before the investigation of the Boeing catastrophe," Russia’s outspoken deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, said via his Twitter account.
The Kremlin has suggested the Ukrainian government is culpable because it allowed commercial airlines to fly over a combat zone, and Russian media have focused on the fact Ukrainian air traffic controllers told MH17 to lower its altitude from 35,000 feet to 33,000 feet after entering the country’s airspace. The airspace over the Donetsk region was closed below 32,000 feet, but Malaysian Airlines and other carriers continued to fly over at higher altitudes even after rebels shot down several Ukrainian military planes in recent weeks.
The rebels say they have no fear of an investigation, since they claim it will show it was the Ukrainian military, not the separatists, who shot MH17 out of the sky. The rebels say they don’t have the weaponry to target a plane flying at an altitude of more than 30,000 feet.
However, Russia’s Itar-Tass news service reported on June 29 that fighters from the Donetsk People’s Republic claimed to have taken over an air defense base in eastern Ukraine “equipped with Buk missile defense systems.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that more than 100 of the dead were on their way to an AIDS conference. This version has been corrected.