GRABOVE – 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 epicentre 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-kilometre 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.
– ‘Wake-up call’ –
US President Barack Obama and major world leaders now agree that the Malaysia Airlines jet was blown out of the sky at 33,000 feet (10,000 metres) by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-controlled territory.
Kiev has gone a step further by accusing militias of using a Russian-supplied Buk system to down the jet after confusing it with a Ukrainian military transporter.
Ukraine has released recordings of what it said was an intercepted call between an insurgent commander and a Russian intelligence officer as they realised they had shot down a passenger jet.
But Putin has blamed the tragedy on Kiev’s three-month military operation and said its new leaders were solely responsible for security across the strategic nation — which since its 1991 independence has marked the geopolitical fault line between Russia and the West.
Moscow has also drawn some governments’ ire by questioning why the packed jet was flying over a combat zone in the first place.
The plane’s downing came less than a day after the United States unleashed punishing sanctions against some of Russia’s most important energy and military firms — most of them with links to Putin — and urged more hesitant European leaders to follow suit.
“We want Russia to take the path that would result in peace in Ukraine, but so far, at least, Russia has failed to take that path,” Obama said on Friday in a special address on Ukraine.
“I think that this certainly will be a wake-up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences to an escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”
The European Union — many of its member states dependent on Russian gas — took the far less punitive step on Friday of curbing some future investments in Russia and leaving the option open for broader sanctions.
– Russian military support –
US Department of Defense spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said “it strains credulity that (the missile) can be used by separatists without some measure of Russian support and assistance.”
Putin rejects all charges of providing either funding or military support to the insurgents in order to punish the new pro-Western leaders in Kiev for the February ouster of a Kremlin-backed president.
Rebel commanders have also denied being in possession of any functioning Buk systems — a claim that contradicts an earlier announcement of them having seized some from Ukrainian troops.
Kiev has released footage purportedly showing militias trying to covertly send one Buk unit back across the Russian border.
Ukrainian Defence Minister Valeriy Geletey said the rebels had probably used a Buk system that Russia had seized from Ukraine during its March annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.