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MH17: Malaysia reaches 'behind the scenes' deal to recover bodies

A man from the Ukrainian community living in Malaysia lights candles for a memorial to the victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Kuala Lumpur on July 21, 2014.

OLIVIA HARRIS/REUTERS

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said his government and others have reached a tentative agreement to get back the bodies of those who perished in Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine.

Because Malaysia is a mainly Muslim country, there has been a lot of anguish here about recovering the bodies in time for a quick burial according to Islamic rituals.

"We have been working behind the scenes," Mr. Razak told reporters at his official residence at a hastily arranged press conference at midnight.

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He said that they have been trying to secure investigators' access to the crash site, which lies in territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, but "above all" they were working to bring back the bodies of the 43 Malaysians who died, both passengers and crew. Mr. Razak said six Malaysian investigators would accompany the bodies by train to Kharkiv and by helicopter to Amsterdam, where the Malaysians' remains would be brought back home "following any necessary forensic work."

Under the deal, east Ukrainian separatist forces will give two flight recorders from MH17 to Malaysian investigators in Donetsk. Sergei Kavtaradze, a spokesman of the rebels' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told Reuters the exchange would take place later Monday night.

"Tonight we have established the basis of an agreement to do just that," he said.

Mr. Razak has been relatively subdued in his public comments so far on the disaster, which comes after the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 just four months ago. While western leaders began pressuring Russia over its support of the insurgents operating in the area where the plane was shot down, Mr. Razak has been meeting with distraught families of the deceased.

"In recent days there were times I wanted to give greater voice to the anger and grief that the Malaysian people feel, that I feel," Mr. Razak said. But he said they were working quietly to ensure that bodies were recovered.

During the last airline crash, Mr. Razak's government came in for harsher international criticism for its handling of the crisis, which many Malaysians thought was confused and obfuscatory.

With a report from Reuters and Globe staff

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