(Updates with U.S. statement on crash-site access in fifth paragraph. For more news on the crash, see EXT2.)
July 20 (Bloomberg) -- Ukraine officials pressed their case that Russia supplied the missile they say brought down a Malaysian Airlines jet killing 298 people, as investigators struggled to begin their work at a crash site patrolled by pro- Russian rebels.
An official with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Michael Bociurkiw, said the atmosphere at the site yesterday was “surreal.” As many as 900 rebels are putting pressure on investigators trying to do their work, according to Ukrainian Deputy Premier Volodymyr Hroisman.
Ukraine separatists had in their possession “at least” three Russian-made surface-to-air missile systems, known by their NATO designation SA-11 Gadfly, Ukraine state security official Vitaliy Nayda said in Kiev yesterday. He said that as part of a cover-up of who fired the missile, three of the systems were transported back to Russia just hours after the plane was shot down. Nayda displayed photos which he said showed them on the road to the Russian border.
The downing of the aircraft has become a diplomatic flashpoint, with Russian President Vladimir Putin blaming Ukraine for the tragedy while the U.S. and European governments are urging Russia to allow unfettered access to the crash site. The crash threatens to escalate five months of conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“The site is not secure, and there are multiple reports of bodies being removed, parts of the plane and other debris being hauled away, and potential evidence tampered with,” Jen Psaki, U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This is unacceptable and an affront to all those who lost loved ones and to the dignity the victims deserve”
Russia has denied it supplies arms to the separatists and the rebels have denied they fired the missile.
The OSCE’s Bociurkiw provided a phone briefing from the crash site near Torez, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Russian border in eastern Ukraine. “There is a lot of security here, with many heavily armed people,” he said.
The 24-member OSCE team saw unidentified people moving bodies to the side of the road, he said.
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, told reporters in Kiev that “Russian mercenaries loaded bodies onto trucks” and delivered them to Donetsk to search for debris in the victims from the missile believed to have downed the plane on July 17.
He suggested the rebels were examining the bodies to find and hide evidence of their side’s culpability for the missile’s firing.
The Gadfly, known locally as the Buk-M, is a radar-guided weapon that can find a target at a range of 140 miles and reach altitudes as high as about 72,000 feet, according to the army- technology.com website.
‘Question No. 1’
While Ukraine officials have called for a special cease- fire zone to be honored at the crash site, Hroisman said that neither the separatists nor their Russian allies have provided guarantees for security.
“We are doing our best to get access and to be able to transport bodies to send them to their homelands after the necessary examination,” Hroisman told reporters in Kiev yesterday. Body transportation “is the question No. 1 for us,” he said.
The crash, which claimed the lives of all of those aboard Flight 17 bound from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, has deepened Europe’s worst political crisis since the Cold War ended.
President Barack Obama on July 18 said the U.S. had determined the plane, a Boeing Co. 777, was struck by a missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian insurgents. Obama, who has said Russia is behind the arming of the separatists, also decried what he termed Putin’s refusal to “de-escalate the situation.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Putin spoke by phone early yesterday and agreed that the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations specialized agency, should lead the crash investigation. Both leaders also stressed the necessity of ending armed clashes in southeastern Ukraine and starting peace talks, according to a Kremlin statement.
As Ukraine accuses Russia of supplying the missile, Putin has blamed the Kiev government, saying the crash wouldn’t have happened had it not fomented the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The disaster occurred hours after the U.S. and the European Union imposed further sanctions on Putin.
Sanctions imposed by the U.S. since the Ukraine crisis began have been more far-reaching than those adopted by the European Union, though the plane disaster may alter that disparity. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after a phone conversation yesterday that the EU will need to reconsider its approach to Russia, according to a statement from Cameron’s office.
U.S. Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, yesterday broached his suspicions of a cover-up.
“I think what’s happened is a rather poorly trained separatist group here probably have inadvertently shot down an airliner and are now trying to cover this up,” he said on CNN. “That’s the part you see on the ground.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has dispatched two agents with training in forensics and crime scenes to Ukraine to assist in collecting evidence at the crash scene, a U.S. law enforcement official said. As of yesterday, they were waiting in Kiev for security conditions to improve before going to the crash site, the official said.
An investigator for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board who left Washington on July 18 hadn’t made it to the crash site as of late yesterday, said a person briefed on the matter who requested anonymity in discussing it.
Malaysia, which is suffering its second plane tragedy in four months, sent Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai to Kiev. “Any action that can prevent us from learning about the truth of MH17 cannot be tolerated,” he told reporters yesterday at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, using shorthand for the plane’s designation.
“Malaysia calls for all parties to protect the integrity of the crash site and to allow the investigation to proceed,” Liow said. “Yes, MH17 has become a geopolitical issue. But we must not forget that it is a human tragedy.”
Australia’s foreign minister will go to New York to seek a binding UN resolution on an independent probe.
At the crash site, OSCE’s Bociurkiw yesterday said his team was trying to determine the identities of the people moving the remains and who they represent. He said the jet’s flight data recorders -- known as black boxes -- still haven’t been found. The Ukraine government said rebels have taken at least 38 bodies to Donetsk, the regional capital.
In Grabovo, a village where much of the plane’s debris is scattered, reporters found gunmen looking on as rescue workers gathered bodies.
The gunmen, representatives of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, let workers from Ukraine’s Emergency Ministry to set up tents at the scene while limiting access to international investigators.
At the Dutch embassy in Kiev, people left thousands of flowers, candles and toys to remember the travelers from the Netherlands who died in the crash. The majority of the passengers -- at least 192 -- were from the Netherlands, including a Dutch senator who died with his wife and daughter, and a University of Amsterdam academic, who worked to bring cheaper AIDS drugs to Africa.
“I feel very sorry for all these innocent people who were killed, and for the children,” said Halyna Vituk, 64, as she broke into tears, dressed all in white and carrying sunflowers and a candle at the embassy in Kiev. “Putin should bear all the responsibility. And of course, the separatists. But they will not shoot without his order.”
When it was hit, Flight 17 was at about 33,000 feet (10,000 meters), taking a route over Ukraine that several other carriers have been avoiding. The jet was at an altitude cleared for commercial traffic, according to navigation agency Eurocontrol.
In March, Malaysian Airline Flight 370 vanished with 239 people on board en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. It has yet to be located.
--With assistance from Del Quentin Wilber and Richard Rubin in Washington.