MH17: Rebels release train carrying crash victims

Above left, toys are placed at the site of the crash. Below left, some of the luggage collected. Main photo, a man stands inside the refrigerated train. Photo / AP
Above left, toys are placed at the site of the crash. Below left, some of the luggage collected. Main photo, a man stands inside the refrigerated train. Photo / AP

Pro-Moscow separatists released a train packed with bodies from the downed Malaysia Airlines plane and have handed back the black boxes today, bowing to heavy international pressure four days after the jet plunged into rebel-held eastern Ukraine.

Watch: Dutch investigators inspect bodies

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With body parts decaying in sweltering heat and signs that evidence at the crash site was mishandled, anger in Western capitals has mounted at the rebels and their allies in Moscow.

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have handed over two black boxes recovered from the crash site of the MH17 jet to Malaysian officials.

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They also announced at a press conference a ceasefire within a 10km radius around the crash site to allow international investigators to safely access the vast area where the Malaysia Airlines flight was downed.

Their reluctant cooperation will soothe mourning families and help investigators, but may do little to reconcile the East-West powers struggling over Ukraine's future.

Russia's Defense Ministry said it saw no evidence a missile was fired and denied involvement in the downing of Flight 17 - and suggested the Ukrainian military was at fault.

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President Vladimir Putin spoke out but showed no sign of abandoning the separatists as fighting flared anew near the site of the crash.

President Barack Obama accused the rebels of tampering with evidence and insulting victims' families, warning of new sanctions. Europeans will consider their own sanctions later today.


The train car is locked as a refrigerated train loaded with bodies of the passengers prepares to depart the station in Torez. Photo / AP


A satellite image shows the primary crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Photo / Airbus DS/AllSource Analysis/AP

Bodies held hostage

The bodies of the 298 victims, most from the Netherlands, have become a part of the conflict in Ukraine because they could hold evidence of what brought the plane down on July 17 as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Grief turned to anger as families begged to get the bodies of their loved ones back, while the separatists held on to the remains.

"Bodies are just lying there for three days in the hot sun. There are people who have this on their conscience," said Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand, whose son, Bryce, and his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers died on their way to a vacation in Bali, in an interview with The Associated Press in the Netherlands.

Videographic: Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash

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"When I am in my bed at night, I see my son lying on the ground. ... They have to come home, not only those two. Everybody has to come home."

International forensics experts finally gained access to the crash site on Monday - an emotional experience for the head of the Dutch National Forensic Investigations Team, Peter Van Vliet. Seeing the wreckage gave him goosebumps, he said.

The team stumbled across remains that had not yet been removed and inspected the perished passengers' luggage.


Flowers placed in front of the Asian Glories restaurant, after a walk to commemorate victims of Flight 17 in Rotterdam. Photo / AP

Stand-off over death train

In Torez, a rebel-held town 15km from the crash site, inspectors bowed heads and clasped hands before climbing aboard refrigerated train cars holding the collected bodies. Armed rebels surrounded them, while commuters boarded other trains nearby.

The smell of decay was overwhelming. Workers wore masks, while passersby twisted their faces in horror at the odor. Temperatures hit 84 degrees F (29 degrees C), and a train engineer told the AP that a power outage had hit the refrigeration system temporarily overnight.

The rebels in Torez did not appear too conciliatory as the tense day wore on. They repeatedly tried to block reporters from access to the visiting experts, growing more aggressive throughout.

Trucks arrived at the Torez station with plastic bags apparently filled with body parts, as well as piles of luggage - suitcases, backpacks, a purse with a Louis Vuitton label.

Ukrainian authorities said the total number of bodies recovered was 282.

Dutch investigators demanded the separatists transfer the bodies immediately, and the rebels complied after several hours.

With a long whistle and puff of smoke, the train bearing the bodies pulled slowly out of the station. Rebels holding automatic rifles walked alongside as it chugged away, a cluster of children on bicycles looking on.

It was headed through troubled territory, its destination not 100 percent clear.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters the train was heading for the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, controlled by rebels, and then on to Kharkiv, site of a crisis center controlled by the Ukrainian government.

He said Ukrainian authorities have agreed to let the bodies be transferred from there to the Netherlands for identification, but gave no time frame.

Malaysia's prime minister said the rebels agreed to hand over both black boxes from Flight 17 to Malaysian investigators in Ukraine later today.


Toys and flowers placed at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Photo / AP

'Strange behaviour' at crash site

A team of international observers at the sprawling crash site described strange behavior by workers.

"When we were leaving, we observed workers there hacking into the fuselage with gas-powered equipment," OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw told reporters in Donetsk.

He said there was no security perimeter Monday at one of the bigger debris fields, and monitors saw that one of the largest pieces of the plane "had somewhat been split or moved apart."

In Washington, Obama asked, "What exactly are they trying to hide?"

"This is an insult to those who have lost loved ones. This is the kind of behavior that has no place in the community of nations," he said.

Yesterday the US said there was "powerful" evidence that the rebels had shot down the plane with a Russian surface-to-air missile, including video of a rocket launcher, one surface-to-air missile missing, being driven away from the likely launch site; imagery showing the firing; phone calls claiming credit for the missile strike and phone recordings said to reveal a cover-up at the crash site.


Russian officials held a press conference to claim a Ukrainian fighter jet flew close to the passenger plane before it was downed. Photo / AP


The Russian Defense Ministry offered its own evidence Monday, showing photos it said proved that Ukrainian surface-to-air systems were operating in the area before the crash - nine times alone the day the plane was brought down.

Russian officials also said they had evidence a Ukrainian Su-25 fighter jet had flown "between 3 to 5km" from the Malaysia Airlines jet.

"(The plane) is armed with air-to-air R-60 rockets, which can hit a target from a distance of up to 12km and guaranteed within 5km," said the chief of Russia's General staff, Lt Gen Andrei Kartopolov.

Defense ministry officials insisted Russia had not given the rebels any surface-to-air missiles - and said they have no evidence that any missiles were launched at all. They asked the US to share any satellite images of the launch.

Putin accused others of exploiting the downing of the plane for "mercenary objectives." He said Kiev authorities had reignited the fighting after a unilateral cease-fire expired without progress on peace talks.

At the UN, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution demanding international access to the crash site and an end to military activities around the area, following intense pressure on a reluctant Russia to support the measure.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine began in mid-April after Russia annexed Ukraine's southern Crimean Peninsula a month earlier.

Battles erupted again Monday between the separatists and government troops in the eastern rebel-held city of Donetsk, 50km to the west of the crash site, according to city authorities. An AP reporter heard several explosions and saw smoke rising from the direction of the city airport.

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