TOREZ, Ukraine (AFP) - Dutch forensic experts on Monday began examining bodies from the MH17 plane disaster that have been held up at a east Ukraine train station as Kiev and insurgents wrangle over the fate of the remains.
As world leaders deplored the “shambolic” state of the crash site left in the hands of the rebels, the animosity between the two sides was underlined by intense shelling which erupted again in rebel stronghold Donetsk, a city just 60 kilometres from the station.
Three people were killed and terrified civilians fled, as Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko quickly ordered his troops to hold fire within a 40-kilometre radius around the crash site, where forensic experts were heading.
Kiev said the remains of the 298 victims killed when the Malaysia Airlines flight was apparently shot by a surface-to-air missile on Thursday should be transferred to the Netherlands. Ukraine accused rebels of refusing to release the grisly cargo, while the insurgents said Kiev could not be trusted and that they would only give control over the remains to international experts.
The UN Security Council is expected to adopt an Australia-backed resolution demanding pro-Russian separatists grant unrestricted access to the crash site to international experts when it meets at 1900 GMT on Monday (Tuesday, 3am Singapore time).
Moscow has borne the brunt of international fury, as the United States accused Russia of supplying the missile system used to shoot down the aircraft. President Vladimir Putin, who has also come under fire for failing to use his influence to get the pro-Russian rebels to give investigators full access to the crash site, has sought to temper the outrage, saying Russia would do “everything in its power” to resolve the Ukrainian conflict.
At the Torez station, close to Donetsk, an overpowering stench filled the air as Dutch investigators, wearing masks and headlights, opened each of the train wagons holding the remains of recovered bodies.
“I think the storage of the bodies is (of) good quality,” Mr Peter Van Vliet, the forensic expert leading the Dutch team, said after examining the corpses. “Now we hope that the train will leave so that we can do the necessary analyses. It is not technically possible here,” he said, as 50 armed insurgents looked on.
Mr Van Vliet said he and his team were escorted by Ukrainian soldiers to a certain point before being handed over to the separatists, and that they would head to the main crash site about 15 kilometres away.
It was reported earlier that items thought to be the “black box” voice and data recorders from the airliner had been found. “They are under our control,” separatist leader Aleksander Borodai, prime minister of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic, told a news conference.
Nearby in Donetsk, insurgent fighters on Monday closed off the roads around the airport and train station on the edge of the city as local residents escaped intense shelling in minibuses and on foot.
A rebel fighter told AFP that government troops had attacked their positions close to the transport hub at around 10am (0700 GMT). “They came within about two kilometres of the station,” insurgent gunman Volodya told AFP.
Four days after the crash, patience was wearing thin over the limited access to the crash site in Grabove, where debris is spread over kilometres and where salvage workers were still combing the vast cornfields for remains of the victims. “As anyone who has been watching the footage will know, this is still an absolutely shambolic situation,” Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.
Malaysia’s transport minister Liow Tiong Lai has also expressed concerns that “the sanctity of the crash site has been severely compromised”.
Only a team of conflict monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were allowed briefly to access the main crash site.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has slammed as “grotesque” the manner in which “drunken separatist soldiers” were allegedly “unceremoniously piling bodies into trucks, removing both bodies, as well as evidence, from the site”.
Insurgents defended their actions, with a rebel chief saying they had moved scores of bodies “out of respect for the families”.
But that is little comfort for outraged families of the victims. The anger was palpable in an open letter addressed by Dutch national Hans de Borst, who lost his 17-year-old daughter Elsemiek in the crash.
“Thank you very much Mr Putin, separatist leaders or the Ukrainian government, for murdering my dear and only child,” he wrote in the letter published by Dutch media on Monday. “I hope that you’re proud to have destroyed her young life and that you can look yourself in the mirror,” he wrote.