Ukraine accused Russia and pro-Moscow rebels on Saturday of destroying evidence of “international crimes” from the wreckage of the Malaysian airliner that Kiev says militants shot down with a missile, killing nearly 300 people.
Fighting and artillery barrages flared near the Russian border in the hours after President Barack Obama called the loss of flight MH17 a “wake-up call” to Europe to join the US in threatening Moscow with heavier economic sanctions if it does not use its influence to help end a conflict that has driven the gravest East-West confrontation since the Cold War.
Malaysia, whose national airline has been battered by its second major disaster this year, said it was “inhumane” to bar access to the site around the village of Hrabove, near the city of Donetsk, and said Russia was doing its “level best” to help. It defended the use of an air corridor over Ukraine’s war zone.
“The terrorists, with the help of Russia, are trying to destroy evidence of international crimes,” the Ukrainian government said in a statement. “The terrorists have taken 38 bodies to the morgue in Donetsk,” it said, accusing people with “strong Russian accents” of threatening to conduct autopsies.
Ukraine’s prime minister said armed men barred government experts from collecting evidence and threatened to detain them.
At Hrabove, one armed man from the separatist forces told Reuters that bodies had been taken away in trucks. Amid reports of looting, militants and local people say they have been doing their best to collect evidence and preserve human remains.
As the stench of death begins to pervade the area, a Reuters correspondent watched rescue workers carry bodies across the fields and gather remains in black sacks. One local resident said Ukrainian fighter jets had flown over the area earlier.
Quite who controls what around the site is unclear. Rebel forces, who have declared a Donetsk People’s Republic in the Russian-speaking east and want union with Moscow, have set up cordons and checkpoints around the area.
The security council in Kiev said staff of the emergencies ministry had found 186 bodies – a little more than half the 298 aboard the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 – and had checked some 18 sq.km of the scattered 25-sq.km crash site. But the workers were not free to conduct a normal investigation.
“The fighters have let the Emergencies Ministry workers in there but they are not allowing them to take anything from the area,” security council spokesperson Andriy Lysenko said. “The fighters are taking away all that has been found.”
He added that he had no information on the black box flight recorders, both of which separatists have said have been found.
A party of observers from Europe’s OSCE security body, based in Donetsk, visited the site on Friday and found access limited by what it said were hostile armed men, some of them drunk.
Following a demand from the United Nations Security Council for an independent investigation, both sides in the conflict have offered ceasefires and cooperation but the situation on the ground remains confused and Ukrainian officials said there were several clashes overnight in areas near the city of Luhansk.
A team of Malaysian experts flew in to Kiev on Saturday.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk issued a statement after he spoke to the foreign minister of The Netherlands – more than half those aboard the flight from Amsterdam were Dutch.
He said government experts sent to the site “were not given the opportunity to collect evidence”.
“They gave them less than an hour there, and made them leave the site of the catastrophe threatening to take them hostage.”
With some commentators talking of a pivotal moment in the East-West confrontation over Ukraine that began in November, Obama said the shooting down of MH17 in a region controlled by Russian-backed separatists should be a “wake-up call for Europe and the world” – an indication of some US impatience at worry among EU allies that challenging Moscow could hurt their trade.
While stopping short of blaming Russia for Thursday’s loss of the plane, three hours into a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, he said it was the Kremlin’s failure to stop the violence that made it possible to shoot down the plane.
A senior US official said there was increasing confidence that the missile was fired by separatist, as the Ukrainian government asserts, and that there was no reason to doubt the validity of a audiotape that Kiev has circulated in which voices identified as separatists discussed the downing of the plane.
“This certainly will be a wake-up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences to an escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine; that it is not going to be localised, it is not going to be contained,” Obama told reporters on Friday.
Obama spoke by phone later with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The White House said they discussed Ukraine and the downed jet and the need for an unimpeded international investigation into what happened.
Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said on Saturday he would fly to the Ukraine capital of Kiev to ensure an investigating team gets safe access to the site. Before setting off, he said it would be “inhumane” not to have access, but said Moscow was trying to help: “They are trying their level best to assist Malaysia to ensure we have a safe site,” Liow said.
Defence Minister and former transport minister Hishammuddin Hussein said a priority was to ensure debris was not tampered with.
“We want to get to the bottom of this,” he added, saying that Malaysia had been in touch with officials in Russia, Ukraine, the US, Britain and China.
“We do not have a position until the facts have been verified, whether the plane was really brought down, how it was brought down, who brought it down,” he said.
International observers said gunmen stopped them examining the site properly when they got there on Friday. More than half of the victims were Dutch in what has become a pivotal incident in deteriorating relations between Russia and the West.
Obama ruled out military intervention.
Russia, which Obama said was letting the rebels bring in weapons, has expressed anger at implications it was to blame, saying people should not prejudge the outcome of an inquiry. The rebels have said Ukrainian government forces downed the plane.
The UN said 80 children were aboard. The deadliest attack on a commercial airliner, follows the disappearance of flight MH370 in March with 239 passengers.
Makeshift white flags marked where bodies lay in corn fields and among the debris. Others, stripped bare by the force of the crash, had been covered by polythene sheeting weighed down by stones, one marked with a flower in remembrance.
One pensioner said a woman smashed though her roof. “There was a howling noise and everything started to rattle. Then objects started falling out of the sky,” said Irina Tipunova (65). “And then I heard a roar and she landed in the kitchen.”
The scale of the disaster could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, which has killed hundreds since pro-Western protests toppled the Moscow-backed president in Kiev in February and Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula a month later.
“This outrageous event underscores that it is time for peace and security to be restored in Ukraine,” Obama said, adding that Russia had failed to use its influence to curb rebel violence.
While the West has imposed sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, the US has been more aggressive than the European Union. Analysts say the response of Germany and other EU powers to the incident – possibly imposing more sanctions – could be crucial in deciding the next phase of the standoff with Moscow.
Some commentators even recalled Germany’s sinking of the Atlantic liner Lusitania in 1915, which helped push the US into World War I but outrage in the West at Thursday’s carnage is not seen as leading to military intervention.
The UN Security Council called for a “full, thorough and independent international investigation” into the downing of the plane and “appropriate accountability” for those responsible.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was too early to decide on further sanctions before it was known exactly what had happened to the plane. Britain took a similar line but later echoed Obama in pointing the finger at the separatists.
Kiev and Moscow immediately blamed each other for the disaster, triggering a new phase in their propaganda war. – Reuters