KIEV — Pro-Russia separatist militiamen have seized custody of 196 bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet that was downed by a surface-to-air missile, Ukrainian officials said Sunday, and rebels continued to limit access to the crash site and block the work of investigators.
More than three days after the jetliner crashed, international investigators still had only limited access to the fields where the plane fell. Cranes at the crash scene moved big chunks of the Boeing 777, drawing condemnation from Western leaders that separatist rebels were tampering with the site, the Associated Press reported.
Leaders of Britain, France, and Germany spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone late Sunday, urging him to use his influence on the separatists to ensure the victims could be repatriated and international investigators could have full access to collect evidence.
They said European foreign ministers will be meeting in Brussels on Tuesday to consider further sanctions on Russia.
Ukrainian emergency responders, working under gaze of the armed rebels, recovered 196 bodies from the area of eastern Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, carrying 298 passengers and crew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, crashed Thursday afternoon.
But the responders were forced to turn the bodies over to the separatists, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said at a briefing in Kiev on Sunday. Lysenko said officials believed that 38 of those bodies were taken to the morgue in Donetsk, a regional capital that is controlled by separatists.
Michael Bociurkiw, the leader of an observer mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, said other bodies had been placed in three refrigerated railroad cars in the town of Torez, near the crash site.
Bociurkiw said monitors were told that the rail cars were under the control of rebels from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, one of the main separatist groups. Monitors were permitted to make a brief inspection, Bociurkiw said, and the body bags all appeared to have tags on them.
“We were escorted to the railway station by heavily armed guards of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” he said. “They are the ones in charge of that area.”
Large groups of searchers were working at the 42-square-mile crash site, near the village of Grabovo, for the first time Sunday. Coal miners and people in civilian clothes walked through wheat and corn fields, looking for those bodies that were still missing. Bodies were placed in black plastic bags and laid along the side of the road in matted grass.
By midday, observers from the OSCE had arrived and were walking the crash site’s perimeter. Four Ukrainian investigators, who according to the OSCE’s security detail had arrived from Kiev, were taking photographs in the burned area near the front of the site. They would not speak to journalists.
The chaos, delay, and potential mishandling of evidence at the crash site, and the uncertainty over when relatives would be able to reclaim the remains of their loved ones, added a frustrating and emotionally wrenching dimension to the looming geopolitical confrontation over Russia’s possible role in the downing of the aircraft.
Secretary of State John Kerry in a telephone conversation Saturday with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, urged Russia to help control the situation at the crash scene and help end the insurrection in east Ukraine by pressing rebels to lay down arms.
In a statement Saturday, the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, whose country lost 193 of its citizens aboard the plane, urged the speedy return of bodies and expressed outrage at the lack of control over the site.
“Swift recovery of the victims’ remains is now an absolute necessity and our highest priority,” Rutte said in the statement. “I am shocked by the images of completely disrespectful behavior at this tragic place. In defiance of all the rules of proper investigation, people have evidently been picking through the personal and recognizable belongings of the victims. This is appalling.”
Senior US and Ukrainian officials have said they have conclusive evidence that the plane was shot down by a missile from a Russian antiaircraft system, fired from within rebel controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia separatists have been battling government forces since April.
Officials said they had photographs and other intelligence showing that three Buk-M1 weapons systems, also known in the west as SA-11 Gadfly, were transported across the border into Russia early Friday morning, within hours after the civilian plane was destroyed. A rocket was missing from the back of one system, officials said.
Despite the increasing evidence of Russia’s involvement and widespread international outrage, neither the United States nor its allies in Europe have announced any response. Russia has denied any role in the disaster.
The Ukrainian government has said that none of its surface-to-air missiles were in position in the area at the time, and none were fired.