Ukraine accuses pro-Russia rebels of tampering with crash site
By Marion Thibaut and Dmitry Zaks ,AFP
July 20, 2014, 12:00 am TWN
GRABOVE, Ukraine -- Ukraine on Saturday accused pro-Russian insurgents of destroying evidence at the crash site of a Malaysian jet whose downing in the rebel-held east has drawn global condemnation of the Kremlin.
Outraged world leaders have demanded Russia's full cooperation with what is quickly becoming a monumentally challenging probe into the shooting down of a Kuala Lumpur-bound flight from Amsterdam with 298 people from nearly a dozen countries on board.
Malaysia's transport minister also expressed alarm over "indications that vital evidence has not been preserved in place" by militias guarding the scene of the worst carnage since the crisis in Ukraine first turned deadly at the start of the year.
Rebels backed up by muscular diplomatic support from the Kremlin have shown few signs of being ready to cooperate with an investigation that could potentially blame them for attacking the Boeing 777 jet.
A team of nearly 30 international monitors who returned to inspect the wreckage were met with Kalashnikov-wielding militias who gave them access to only the outskirts of the field — its swaying sunflowers hiding dismembered remains of charred and decomposing bodies of victims whose lives were cut short on Thursday.
The grisly site has turned into the epicenter of the Cold War-style standoff between the West and Moscow over the future over the war-scarred former Soviet state.
The Ukrainian government issued a furious statement declaring that the "terrorists with the support of Russia are trying to destroy proof of this international crime."
Kiev accused militia fighters of refusing to hand over "black box" data recorders and inexplicably moving 38 bodies to a morgue in the insurgent-controlled city of Donetsk.
Rebel leader Oleksandr Borodai told reporters that militias had never recovered the data recorders and denied tampering with any evidence.
But he also dismissed an earlier announcement by Kiev of the two sides having agreed to set up a 20-kilometer buffer zone around the expansive site where remains of flight MH17 hit the ground.
"That has not been an issue," Borodai said.
His comments came only minutes before Berlin announced that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin had issued a joint call for an independent commission to have immediate access to the site.
Putin and Merkel "agreed that an international, independent commission under the direction of ICAO (the United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization) should quickly have access ... to shed light on the circumstances of the crash and move the victims," the German government said.
The diplomatic wrangling was accompanied by uninterrupted fighting across Ukraine's eastern rustbelt — a Russia-speaking region of seven million people who largely view the more nationalistic west of the splintered country with mistrust.
Ukrainian forces reported taking full control of the main airport of the rebel stronghold of Lugansk — like Donetsk the capital of its own "People's Republic" — and launching all-out offensives against two nearby towns.
Government troops said they had also established full control of Donetsk airport for the first time since it was seized at the end of May in a bloody raid that saw militias lose more than 40 fighters — most of them Russian nationals.
Kiev said the latest clashes killed five soldiers and wounded another 20.