Torez, Ukraine -
Pro-Moscow rebels piled nearly 200 bodies from the downed Malaysian jetliner into four refrigerated boxcars on Sunday in eastern Ukraine, and cranes at the crash scene moved big chunks of the Boeing 777, drawing condemnation from Western leaders that the rebels were tampering with the site.
The United States, meanwhile, presented what it called “powerful” evidence that the rebels shot down the plane with a Russian surface-to-air missile and training. Although other governments have stopped short of accusing Russia of actually causing the crash, the US was ahead of most in pointing blame on Moscow for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 that killed all 298 people aboard.
“Russia is supporting these separatists. Russia is arming these separatists. Russia is training these separatists,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on CNN's State of the Union.
Leaders of Britain, France and Germany spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone late on Sunday, urging him to use his influence on the separatists to ensure the victims could be repatriated and international investigators could have full access to collect evidence. They said European foreign ministers will be meeting in Brussels on Tuesday to consider further sanctions on Russia.
More than three days after the jetliner crashed, international investigators still had only limited access to the sprawling fields where the plane fell.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a blistering opinion piece for the Sunday Times, said “the growing weight of evidence” suggests the rebels shot down the plane, and if that is so, “this is a direct result of Russia destabilising a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias and training and arming them”.
Russian officials have blamed Ukraine's government for creating the situation and atmosphere in which the plane was downed, but has yet to directly address the allegations that the separatists were responsible or were operating with technical assistance from Moscow.
The 100-square-kilometre crash site, spread out on farmland and villages, looked dramatically different on Sunday, a day after armed rebels had stood guard while dozens of bodies lay in the summer heat. The rebels were gone, and 192 bodies were loaded into the refrigerated train cars in the rebel-held town of Torez, 15km away.
The Ukrainian government said in a statement on its website that a second train with four refrigerator cars had arrived at Torez station.
Emergency workers, who the rebels have allowed to operate under their control, were searching the sprawling fields. Cranes moved pieces of the plane around, apparently to look for more bodies underneath.
By Sunday night, Ukraine's emergency services agency said the total number of bodies found was 251, with dozens of body parts.
Kerry expressed outrage at the “grotesque” behaviour of the rebels at the crash scene.
“Drunken separatists are stacking bodies into the back of trucks, removing materials from the site,” he told ABC's This Week.
“On Friday, we had 75 minutes of access to the site; on Saturday, three hours of access. This is an insult to everybody.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country lost 192 citizens on the plane, told a news conference that repatriating the bodies was his “No 1 priority”.
He said all efforts were aimed at getting the train with the bodies to “territory controlled by Ukraine”, adding that a Dutch military plane was being sent to Kharkiv to set up a coordination centre.
Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said reports from the group's investigators in Ukraine suggest some bodies were incinerated without a trace.
“We're looking at the field where the engines have come down. This was the area which was exposed to the most intense heat. We do not see any bodies here. It appears that some have been vapourised,” he said from the crash site.
Rebel leader Alexander Borodai denied the rebels were trying to tamper with evidence, saying the bodies would be turned over to a team of Malaysian experts he was expecting.
A group of investigators that included Malaysian officials was in Kiev, but said they wouldn't go into rebel-held areas until they get better assurances about security. The Ukrainian government, which has responsibility for the investigation, has also asked for help from the International Civil Aviation Organisation - a UN body - and Eurocontrol, a European air traffic safety Organisation.
Borodai insisted the rebels have not interfered with the investigation, and said he would turn over the plane's flight data and cockpit voice recorders, or “black boxes”, as well.
“The bodies will go nowhere until experts arrive,” Borodai said in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.
But it was clear that the rebels were interfering in the investigation.
Lyubov Kudryavets, a worker at the Torez morgue, said that on the evening the plane went down, a resident brought in the bloodied body of a child, about 7 or 8 years old. On Saturday, militiamen came to take away the body away, she said.
“They began to question me: ‘Where are the fragments of rocket? Where are the fragments from the plane?’” Kudryavets said. “But I didn't have any wreckage... I swear.”
Experts said that even if investigators are granted access now, it might be too late.
“Even without any deliberate attempt at a cover-up, the crash site is already compromised in forensic terms,” said Keir Giles, an associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank. “A reconstruction of the aircraft fuselage and wings would give a picture on how the missile struck and what kind it was. If any aircraft parts have already been removed... this compromises the objectivity of the investigation.”
On the diplomatic front, Western leaders stepped up the pressure on Putin. The leaders of France, Germany and Britain issued a joint statement demanding that he force the separatists to “finally allow rescuers and investigators to have free and total access to the zone”.
Rutte said the Dutch foreign minister was headed to the UN to lobby “to further expand the international coalition pushing for quick recovery of the bodies and getting to the bottom of the terrible events on MH17”.
In the Netherlands, worshippers at church services prayed for the victims, as anger grew over the rebels' hindering of the investigation.
Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand, whose son, Bryce, and his girlfriend, Daisy Oehlers, were among those killed, said she was appalled their bodies weren't being handed over.
“Mr Putin, send my children home,” she said, speaking on Sky TV from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. “Send them home. Please.” - Sapa-AP