KIEV, Ukraine — International investigators and emergency workers began gaining access Monday to the site in eastern Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed last week as pro-Russian separatists holding the area turned over the plane’s flight recorders to Malaysian officials.
The signs of compromise came as nearly all 298 bodies from the disaster began making their way by train out of the war zone to the government-controlled city of Kharkiv.
The separatists, who have been fighting the Ukrainian government for independence in recent months with the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, are widely suspected of shooting down Flight 17. U.S. intelligence has determined that the missile that brought down the plane came from insurgent-held territory.
Monday’s events marked a potential turning point after three days in which armed separatists heavily restricted movement in the area, often with a show of weaponry. Whether the change for the pro-Russian group led by Alexander Borodai was prompted by internal dynamics, external pressure or new communication from Moscow remains unclear.
Borodai and other separatist leaders handed the aircraft’s flight recorders — which, if undamaged and not tampered with, could give investigators some information about the downing of Flight 17 — to Malaysian officials late Monday in the insurgent-held eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk. There was a formal quality to the event, staged by the separatists and witnessed by invited journalists, with the Malaysian delegation calling Borodai “His Excellency.”
Borodai said he was persuaded to hand over the devices by Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The announcement Monday evening that the train would leave the war zone shortly for Kharkiv came as a particular surprise: As recently as Monday afternoon, with separatist gunmen surrounding the rail cars as they sat at the station of the industrial town of Torez, many observers thought a lengthy negotiation awaited.
But as experts and investigators from a wide range of countries, including the U.S., readied to move into the contested area, some world leaders worried whether they would have the freedom of movement in the war-torn region and whether much of the evidence to be found amid the plane’s wreckage had already been compromised by the separatists.
“It’s a little like leaving criminals in control of the crime scene,” said Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
The U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution Monday calling for investigators to have unfettered access to the crash site and demanding a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. The U.S. ambassador to the world body, Samantha Power, said a resolution would not have been necessary if Russia had used its influence over separatist forces to permit access to the scene.
Russia joined other Security Council members in the 15-0 vote instead of using its veto power. But Russia Ambassador Vitaly Churkin rejected the U.S. allegations of Russian involvement in blocking access to the site. “There’s no need to turn the discussion of the tragedy into a farce,” he said of Power’s comments.
The administration of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered a military safe zone of 25 miles around the crash site, and Borodai’s group was urged to follow suit. Fighting between government forces and the separatists continued Monday, particularly around Donetsk, where unconfirmed reports late Monday indicated that troops had retaken the airport.
Despite the clashes, three Dutch forensic specialists on Monday became the first experts to arrive in region of eastern Ukraine. The specialists joined monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in inspecting the trains and visiting a site where the plane’s cockpit struck the ground.
The Netherlands, which lost 193 people aboard the plane, will be taking over the investigation of the downed jet in conjunction with international air safety organizations, Ukrainian officials said.
In Washington, President Barack Obama had strong words for Moscow and the group controlling the area, saying that if Russia continues to back the armed separatists then it would “only further isolate itself from the international community, and the costs for Russia’s behavior will only continue to increase.”
“We have to make sure that the truth is out and that accountability exists,” Obama said. “What exactly are they trying to hide?”
But even as pressure mounted, Putin offered his own remarks in which he made no mention of the separatists and took no responsibility for the crash, saying that those who blamed him were using the disaster for political ends.
“No one should and no one has the right to use this tragedy to pursue their own political goals,” he said. “Rather than dividing us, tragedies of this sort should bring people together.”
Obama administration officials believe Putin’s willingness to help ensure the crash site is secure and open to investigators would indicate a shifting stance on Ukraine. After months of watching Putin profess support of peace talks while sending arms across the border from Russia, U.S. officials expressed some cautious optimism that the downing of the plane might serve as a grim turning point in the crisis.
A senior Obama administration official said the U.S. intelligence community feels increasingly confident that the separatists were responsible for the crash. Officials say they have little doubt the separatists used an anti-aircraft missile system probably supplied by Moscow and were trained, and possible led, by Russian nationals. Still, the official, who requested anonymity while discussing the sensitive issue, said the U.S. had not established that any specific Russian officials were at the missile launch site at the time of the incident.
With most of crash victims from Europe, the continent’s foreign ministers will meet in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss toughening sanctions against Russia. British Prime Minister David Cameron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte are among leaders who want harsher measures more in line with the American approach.
“We should push our partners in the European Union to consider a new range of hard-hitting economic sanctions against Russia,” Cameron said Monday, adding that the EU should move to the highest of three tiers of sanctions in which entire sectors were targeted.
As global outrage grows over the separatists’ handling of the crash site and Russia’s involvement with the paramilitary groups, Ukraine increasingly feels it has global momentum on its side. On Monday, it sought to capitalize on that momentum, with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk calling a news conference in Kiev to press the point on his country’s neighbor.
“This is a global threat and Russia is on the dark side,” he told reporters. “This is our priority and (should be) the key priority of the entire world — to stop Russian aggression.”
He added: “President Putin has to realize enough is enough. This is not just a conflict between Ukraine and Russia. This is an international and global conflict.”