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Ukraine separatists agree to hand over bodies and black boxes

Members of a forensics team prepare to inspect rail cars carrying the bodies of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 victims in Torez, Ukraine, on Monday. Mauricio Lima/The New York Times/NYT

KIEV — After days of obstruction, Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine on Monday surrendered the flight recorder boxes of the Malaysia Airlines jetliner downed by a surface-to-air missile last week and allowed the bodies of the victims to be evacuated by train.

The developments appeared to represent a significant movement to end the standoff about the aftermath of the crash of Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The rebels handed over both black boxes to Malaysian investigators in Donetsk. A rebel leader, Alexander Borodai, said the flight recorders were being handed over to Malaysian officials on the condition that they would be delivered to experts at the International Civil Aviation Organization.


The crash killed 298 people, whose bodies lay for days in a wheat field in eastern Ukraine, an area controlled by the separatists.

The refusal of the separatists to permit unfettered access to the crash site has raised suspicions that they were responsible for the missile strike that felled the plane.

It has also generated enormous international criticism of the Ukrainian separatists and of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who Western diplomats say supports the rebels.

In the end, the bodies were sent off alone from a remote train station in Torez, without ceremony, well-wishers, or anyone much beyond a handful of armed rebels.

“I feel sorry for them,” a rebel in a white T-shirt said of the bodies on the train. “So many kids. So much sorrow.”

After a long whistle, the short gray train pulled out of the station, leaving behind a pile of belongings dumped on the platform: a beige purse, a North Face backpack, a child’s pink suitcase.

As the wheels clacked on the rails, rebels walked quietly beside the train as it started a long journey across eastern Ukraine to Kharkiv before international experts would begin to pore over the remains and possibly bring some small measure of relief to the grieving families.


The day in Torez began with a pair of Dutch experts donning masks and climbing into the train cars to inspect the bodies. They arrived at the train station around 11:30, and stood very briefly with bowed heads in a few seconds of silence before starting.

“We need to get the train out of here before darkness,” said Alexander Hug, the deputy chief of a mission from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, chatting with a rebel leader beside the train cars, their voices hushed.

The stench of corpses hung over the conversation.

“If we wait any longer, it won’t be good for anyone,” Hug added. “Not good for the experts, not good for the families that wait for their loved ones, and not good for you.”

More than half the victims of the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight were Dutch, and the others came from more than half a dozen countries.

At a news briefing in Kiev, the Dutch deputy prime minister, Volodymr Groysman, said 282 bodies had been found, as well as dozens of body parts from as many as 16 other victims, suggesting that officials believed they had recovered most of the remains of the passengers and crew from the Boeing 777.

He said that from Kharkiv, the bodies would be flown to Amsterdam, where they would be taken to a laboratory with the latest forensic technology.


According to an analysis by IHS Jane’s, a defense consultancy, a piece of the plane’s wreckage bears telltale marks of small pieces of high-velocity shrapnel that apparently crippled the jet in flight.

Riddled with these perforations and buffeted by a blast wave as it flew high above the conflict zone, the plane then most probably broke apart.

The wreckage, photographed by two reporters for The New York Times in a field several miles from where the largest concentration of the Boeing’s debris settled, suggests that the destruction of the aircraft was caused by a supersonic missile that apparently exploded near the jet as it flew 33,000 feet above the ground, according to the analysis.

The damage, including the shrapnel holes and blistered paint on a panel of the plane’s exterior, is consistent with the effects of a fragmenting warhead carried by an SA-11 missile, known in Russian as a Buk, the type of missile that US officials have said was the probable culprit in the downing of the plane.

It is impossible from these photographs of the damaged plane to determine what specific model of missile was used. But the SA-11 is a member of a class of weapon that carries a fragmenting warhead with a proximity fuse.

If a missile like that functioned as designed, it would cause damage like that evident in the debris of Flight 17.

“Most of the smaller holes look to be caused by a high-velocity projectile, as opposed to simple shearing or tearing caused by the forceful separation of the panel from the airframe,” Reed Foster, an analyst at IHS Jane’s, wrote in an assessment provided to the Times.


The damage visible on the wreckage indicates a sudden end to the aircraft’s journey: Its thin skin was riddled with shrapnel and rocked by the force of a nearby high-explosive blast with twice the power of the blast of a modern artillery shell.

Traveling at more than 500 miles per hour, the plane quickly would shear apart.