Ukrainian Officials Accuse Rebel Militias Of Moving Bodies, Tampering With Evidence

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian officials on Saturday accused the rebel militias that they blame for the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet of moving bodies and tampering with evidence, steps that could make determining the exact circumstances of the disaster far more difficult.

38 bodies have been removed to a morgue in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

Almost two days after Flight 17 was downed by a missile over rebel-held territory in the east of Ukraine, representatives from the Kiev government had still not been allowed access to the mammoth crash site, and rebels were preventing local emergency services personnel from gathering evidence, Ukrainian officials said. 

“They’re playing a game with the state. They behave as an independent country. The reason is to make all the procedures illegitimate,” said Konstantin Batozsky, an adviser to Serhiy Taruta, governor of the Donetsk region.

He said that during the night, rebels had removed 38 bodies to a hospital in the rebel-held city of Donetsk, where they were apparently planning to do their own medical investigation.

“Russian-led terrorists are preventing access of the international community and foreign governments to the location where MH17 crashed,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk wrote on Twitter.

A top Russian rebel leader, Andrei Purgin, said that the crash site was “under the reliable protection of the armed forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” according to a statement on the official site of the group.

He did not address the question of what was being done with bodies.

Rebels had said Friday that they would allow the bodies of the 298 victims to be transported out of the territory that they hold, because they did not have enough refrigerated facilities for all the bodies.

But Ukrainian officials said Saturday that they were still trying to negotiate safe passage for teams of investigators and international observers deep in territory held by the pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country.

“The people who are working for our side in the place of the tragedy do not have free movement,” said Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.

“They are under control of the terrorists, who are taking all the evidence away from them.”

He said that Ukrainian officials still did not have access to crucial flight data recorders, the fate of which remained unclear on Saturday.

The recorders could provide important clues about the final moments of the flight.

Rebels first said they had the recorders and planned to ship them to Russia, then said they were mistaken about having the equipment in their possession.

Liow Tiong Lai, Malaysia’s minister of transportation, called on the international community to help in what had now become a humanitarian as well as a “geopolitical” issue.

“Malaysia is deeply concerned the crash site not vet been properly secured and the integrity of the site has been compromised,” he said.

Blocking access to the site “cannot be tolerated.”

Liow reiterated the government’s insistence that the path the plane had taken over the rebel-held area was safe, and said that 75 other planes had also flown that way in the two days before Thursday’s crash.

He said that the approved flight plan before the journey had a flying level of 35,000 feet, a safer altitude, but that the air traffic controllers in Ukraine directed them to fly at 33,000 feet once the plane had entered Ukrainian airspace.

He said Malaysia was still grappling its the second airline tragedy in five months. 

“It’s painful. We are sad. We’re angry over this madness,” he said.

On Friday, Ukrainian officials moved swiftly to link the downed plane to the separatist rebels, saying that the Boeing 777-200 was targeted by fighters using a surface-to-air missile, possibly with direct Russian aid.

President Obama said Friday that U.S. intelligence indicates that a Russian-made missile downed the plane from rebel territory, but he stopped short of saying who pulled the trigger.

“Nearly 300 innocent lives were taken — men, women, children, infants who had nothing to do with the crisis in Ukraine,” Obama said at the White House.

“Their deaths are [an] outrage of unspeakable proportions.”

Yatsenyuk echoed that sentiment in a highly emotional address posted to his Web site on Friday.

“This is a crime against humanity. All red lines have already been crossed,” he said.

“This is a war against the world.”

Both rebel leaders and Russian officials denied any connection to the crash, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Friday that Ukrainian authorities bore broad responsibility for creating conditions in which citizens were moved to rebellion.

He did not suggest that the Ukrainian military had shot down the plane.

“What happened with the aircraft should make us stop, look back and reflect” on the situation that began when Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February, Lavrov said.

The extensive debris zone includes not only the wheat field where most of the plane was found but also nearby villages.

Witnesses described looking across beautiful fields of sunflowers only to be jolted by the discovery of body parts on the ground.

The recovery efforts were moving slowly amid the civil conflict, and each step forward brought new tensions among the parties, many of whom are heavily armed. 

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Vienna-based organization coordinating a dialogue in the conflict, sent a group of 30 observers to the crash scene Friday, said Shiv Sharma, a spokesman.

The monitors were given access to the site for 75 minutes, and while they were at the heavily guarded site, rebels fired their weapons into the air, Sharma said.

“The shots were not targeting the monitors as such; they were just into the air. It was not a particularly tense situation in which monitors were concerned about their security,” he said.

But the U.S. State Department said in a Twitter message Friday that monitors “were only granted limited access” to the crash site.

“They must have complete unfettered access,” the message said.

The observation team is negotiating on a day-to-day basis for time at the site.

Its job is to secure the crash scene until independent investigators arrive to help with the transfer of bodies.

As of Friday evening, 181 bodies had been found, according to a Ukrainian foreign ministry official, Andrii Sybiga.

The international team, which includes FBI personnel and a National Transportation Safety Board investigator from the United States, was expected to reenter the area later Friday or Saturday morning.

The rebel leaders, who often argue among themselves, were divided over whether to agree to a cease-fire to allow for a fuller international presence at the scene.

“We’re highly interested in an unbiased and full investigation and are prepared to give unrestricted access to the spot of the crash for experts of the CIS Interstate Aviation Committee,” said separatist leader Alexander Borodai, according to the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS.

Borodai was referring to the Commonwealth of Independent States, a group of former Soviet republics.

Access for the committee would give Russian investigators on the scene a major role.

By day’s end, Borodai said no truce talks were being held, and another rebel leader, Denis Pushilin, announced from Moscow that he was resigning from leadership, the Interfax news agency reported.

Rebels have “allowed emergency access, but it’s not sufficient,” said Batozsky, the adviser to the Kiev-appointed governor of Donetsk.

Only local representatives from the regional government were present at the scene, he said.

Those included about 30 regional police officers, 150 officials from the Donetsk office of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, and two or three regional prosecutors, he said.

The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, posted a short video to YouTube allegedly showing a Buk surface-to-air missile system, known in the United States as an SA-11 Gadfly, en route from rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine to the Russian border Friday.

While the video could not be independently verified, the footage appears to show the system with at least one of its missiles missing.

The system appears to be mounted on a tracked chassis, although it has been loaded onto a flatbed trailer.

Tracked vehicles are slower than their wheeled counterparts.

The use of the truck could indicate that the system’s propulsion system is disabled or that speed is a priority for those moving it.

Source: The Washington Post