Ukraine says separatists blocking access to crash site
Ukraine on Saturday accused Russia of helping separatist insurgents they say shot down Malaysian airliner MH17 to try to destroy evidence at the crash site.
“The Ukrainian government officially announces: terrorists with the support of Russia are trying to destroy proof of this international crime,” Ukraine’s government said in a statement.
The plane crashed in Eastern Ukraine, killing nearly 300 people, including a Filipino woman and her two children, on Thursday.
Pro-Moscow rebels had removed 38 bodies from the crash site to a morgue in the insurgent-controlled city of Donetsk where “specialists with clearly Russian accents” said they would conduct autopsies, the statement alleged.
Separatist forces were also blocking access to the site for Ukrainian investigators and international observers and searching for lorries to transport the wreckage to Russia, the statement claimed.
An Agence France Presse crew at the scene of the crash on Saturday said armed rebels were preventing journalists from accessing the site and shot in the air to warn them back.
One rebel commander said dozens of bodies had been removed to the morgue in Donetsk as rescue workers under their supervision continued to collect body parts.
“27 bodies were taken away” this morning, the insurgent commander said, refusing to give his name.
A group of international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told Agence France-Presse that they hoped to return to the crash scene Saturday afternoon after only being granted very limited access to the site by armed rebels a day earlier.
World leaders have called for unfettered access to the crash site to allow for a full investigation into Thursday’s apparent shooting down of the jet. Investigators from the Netherlands and Malaysia have already jetted into Ukraine with the hope of heading out to scene of the crash.
Kiev said earlier Saturday that rebels had agreed with a trilateral group of mediators to set up a security zone around the site.
A Malaysian team including two air accident investigators arrived in Kiev on Saturday and the transport minister was expected to follow as the Malaysian prime minister appealed for access to the MH17 crash site.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone late Friday to stress the need for an objective, unfettered probe into the crash that killed 298 people, amid concerns the site was vulnerable to tampering.
“I also told Putin that the site should not be tampered [with]before the team begins its investigation,” he was quoted saying by national news agency Bernama.
A 62-member Malaysian team arrived in Kiev on Saturday.
Though it occurred in rebel territory, Ukraine’s government has the authority to investigate the crash, under international conventions.
In New York, the United Nations Security Council on Friday (Saturday in Manila) called for a thorough international investigation into the downing of the Malaysian passenger jet.
“The members of the Security Council called for a full, thorough and independent investigation into the incident in accordance with the international civil aviation guidelines and for appropriate accountability,” according to the press statement read by the current rotating president of the month, Rwandan Ambassador Eugene-Richard Gasana.
The 15 members also stressed the need for all parties to grant “immediate access” by investigators to the crash site to determine the cause.
The flight, which was on its way to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, was carrying 298 people, including the crew, when it lost contact over a rebel held area on Thursday.
US President Barack Obama said evidence indicates the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile from a separatist-controlled area in Ukraine.
Russia’s Ambassador Vitaly Churkin in his remarks asked why the Ukrainian air dispatcher allowed the Malaysian flight to proceed over the area where military clashes had taken place and questioned why the airspace had not been closed.
“Today, Kiev declared a full closure of the airspace in the conducting of the so-called anti-terrorist operation,” Churkin said, noting that it should have done so earlier.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev pointed to evidence of recorded conversations between rebels and a Russian intelligence leader. The rebels further used social media, he said, to boast of bringing down what they thought was a military plane.
“This tragedy would not have been possible if Russia did not support the terrorists and did not provide sophisticated anti-aircraft missile system,” the Ukrainian
Dutch Ambassador Karel van Oosterom said his country lost at least 189 citizens.
“This is a dark hour in our national history; we are a nation in shock and in tears,” van Oosterom told council members. “But we are also a nation united in our determination to seek the truth about what happened.”
“This is a grave reminder of how escalation of dispute and threat to international peace and security could claim innocent lives in a most tragic and senseless manner,” said Malaysian Ambassador Hussein Haniff. “Malaysia demands a full, independent and transparent international investigation into the incident involving the relevant international authorities, including the International Civil Aviation Organization.”
In addition to condemning the act, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the “horrifying incident must at the very least prompt a serious and sustained effort to end the fighting in Ukraine.”
He also offered the full cooperation of the international body into the inquiry.
Malaysia Airlines said on Saturday it had determined the nationalities of all the 298 passengers aboard flight MH17.
The airline said the flight had 192 Dutch passengers (including one dual Netherlands/USA citizen), 44 Malaysian (including 15 crew members and two infants), 27 Australian, 12 Indonesian (including an infant), ten British (including one dual UK/South Africa citizen), four German, four Belgian, three Filipino, one Canadian and one New Zealander on board.
In Manila, the Philippine government said it will extend assistance to the families of Filipinos who died in the plane crash. Three Filipinos were confirmed to have died in the incident.
“We are ready to extend assistance. Normally, we do extend repatriation assistance to the loved ones of our Filipinos who may have perished in other countries,” Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said in a radio interview.
The Philippine government also has no information whether the remains of the three Filipinos were recovered from the crash site.