International outrage is growing at eastern Ukrainian rebels – and their patron, Russian President Vladimir Putin – over their treatment of passenger bodies and the wreckage of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane that fell into rebel-held territory after being shot out of the sky last week.
Three days after Flight 17 was hit by what is believed to be a sophisticated surface-to-air missile – which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry alleged was supplied to the separatists by Russia – the corpses of 192 of those who died on board, plus fragments of eight other bodies, were finally loaded Sunday onto refrigerated rail cars in the town of Torez, near the crash site. The bodies were badly decomposed after being left uncovered for two days in the field of wheat and sunflowers where the plane came down, 40 kilometres from Ukraine’s border with Russia.
It was unclear where or when the train would travel. Torez, as well as the nearby centres of Donetsk and Lugansk, are under the control of the rebels, who declared independence from the central government in Kiev two months ago, sparking a bloody civil war in the region.
John Baird, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, has talked with his counterparts in Australia, the Netherlands, and Malaysia about the tragedy and says the international community is calling for an immediate and independent investigation.
The fact that the Russian Federation is not using its influence with the separatists in the eastern Ukraine to allow the bodies of those who perished to be repatriated is troubling, Mr. Baird said in a telephone interview on Sunday from London.
“The fact that the crime scene – and this is a crime scene – is being disturbed is another urgent concern,” he said. “The security and safety of civil aviation is paramount and, frankly, there must be justice brought to bear on those who are responsible for this and those who have aided and abetted it.”
The remains of almost 100 other passengers had not yet been recovered, and some may have been incinerated in the initial explosion. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte – whose citizens accounted for 193 of the total 298 dead – called the rebels’ behaviour at the crash site “appalling,” saying they had tampered with evidence and picked through victims’ possessions.
The Ukrainian government has sent rescue teams to the site, but Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the country’s National Security and Defence Council, said they were working under the supervision of armed fighters from the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic and forced to turn bodies they found over to the separatists.
International investigators have yet to reach the area, as widespread calls for a ceasefire have not brought about an end to fierce fighting in the region between the rebels and Ukrainian government forces. There are also continuing concerns over the fate of Flight 17’s crucial “black box” flight recorders, with the rebels – after several denials – admitting Sunday that they had them and would hold them until international aviation experts arrived.
Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who had already been deployed in the Donetsk region, did briefly inspect the refrigerated train cars on Sunday. A spokesman said the monitors saw body bags with tags on them and experienced the overwhelming smell of decaying corpses.
“We were escorted to the railway station by heavily armed guards of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” said the OSCE’s Michael Bociurkiw. “They are the ones in charge of that area.”
The rebels’ insistence on maintaining control of the crash site is fuelling international anger.
“Drunken – I mean literally, drunken – separatist soldiers are piling bodies into trucks unceremoniously and disturbing the evidence,” Mr. Kerry told Fox News Sunday.
“Airplane parts have been removed,” Mr. Kerry said. “We need full access and this is a moment of truth for Russia. Some of the leaders of the separatists are Russians. Russia arms these separatists. Russia trains these separatists. Russia supports these separatists. Russia has refused to call on them publicly to do the things that need to be done.”
One Canadian – 24-year-old Andrei Anghel of Ajax, Ont. – was killed aboard Flight 17. On Saturday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak tweeted that he felt the tragedy “personally,” because his step-grandmother was among the dead.
Western leaders continued to up the pressure on Mr. Putin to rein in the rebels and allow a proper probe into what happened to Flight 17. There were signs this was happening Sunday, as well-trained men wearing the uniforms of Ukraine’s disbanded Berkut riot police took over the disaster site, enforcing a semblance of order that had been missing in the first 48 hours following the crash.
The Berkut were loyal to Ukraine’s former president, the Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych, until he was ousted by a pro-Western revolution in February. The Berkut later played a supporting role during Russia’s March seizure and annexation of the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine. The appearance of men in Berkut uniforms at the crash site suggests the force might have been reactivated by Moscow.
Ties between Moscow and the West have plunged to post-Cold War lows this year, with Canada, the United States and the European Union imposing a raft of sanctions meant to punish Russia for its actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
In a separate interview with CNN, Mr. Kerry said that – because of video posted on social media, plus U.S. satellite observation of the area – “we know with confidence” that the missile that knocked Flight 17 out of the sky was an anti-aircraft system from Russia that had been transferred to the separatists.
“We know because we observed it by imagery that at the moment of the shoot-down we detected a launch from that area,” Mr. Kerry said. “Our trajectory shows that it went to the aircraft.”
The Kremlin has blamed Kiev for the tragedy, suggesting it could have been the Ukrainian military that shot down Flight 17 and questioning why a passenger airline was allowed to overfly a conflict zone in the first place. Russian media has complained of an unfair effort by the West to try and blame Mr. Putin for the disaster.
“The statements of representatives of the U.S. administration are evidence of a deep political aberration of Washington's perception of what is going on in Ukraine,” Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said Saturday. “Despite an obvious and indisputable nature of the arguments provided by rebels and Moscow, the U.S. administration is pushing its own agenda.”
In an editorial printed on the front page of The Sunday Times newspaper, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the downing of Flight 17 – which had 10 British citizens on board – was a result of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which he said had been “fomented by Moscow.”
“This is a direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias and training and arming them,” Mr. Cameron wrote. “If President Putin does not change his approach to Ukraine, then Europe and the West must fundamentally change our approach to Russia.”