Pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine said on Sunday they had recovered objects which appear to be the black boxes of downed Malaysian airliner MH17 and are willing to hand them over to international investigators.
“Jet parts resembling the black boxes were discovered at the crash site,” said Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, adding that they would be handed over to “international experts if they arrive”.
Separatist rebels have taken away all the 196 bodies that workers recovered from the Malaysian Airlines plane crash site to an unknown location, Ukraine’s emergency services said on Sunday.
An AFP reporter on the scene witnessed scores of bodies being recovered at the crash site and removed from the location.
Associated Press journalists saw the rebels putting bagged bodies onto trucks at the crash site on Saturday in eastern Ukraine and driving them away.
On Sunday, AP journalists saw no bodies at the crash site and emergency workers were searching the sprawling area only for body parts.
Ukrainian spokeswoman Nataliya Bystro said on Sunday that the emergency workers had been laboring under duress and were forced to give the bodies to the armed rebels.
“Where they took the bodies – we don’t know,” Bystro told The Associated Press.
Alexander Pilyushny, an emergency worker combing the site for body parts on Sunday morning, told the AP it took the rebels several hours on Saturday to take away the bodies.
Pilyushny said he and others had no choice but to give the bodies to the rebels because “they are armed, and we are not.”
“The rebels came, put the bodies onto the trucks and took them away somewhere,” Pilyushny said.
Placed on a train
International monitors and Ukrainian officials say armed rebels forced emergency workers to hand over all 196 bodies recovered from the Malaysia Airlines crash site and have loaded them onto refrigerated trains.
Iryna Gudyma, a spokeswoman for monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said some of the bodies were put on trains at Torez, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the crash site.
Russian news agencies said the bodies were heading to the rebel stronghold of Donetsk. Ukrainian officials say they expect to have the bodies eventually delivered to government-held city of Kharkiv, but it’s unclear if the rebels will agree to do so.
102 bodies still not yet found
Neither Bystro nor Pilyushny could explain what happened to the 102 bodies that have not yet been found.
Pro-Russian rebels who had been guarding the main impact site also appeared to have left, with about a dozen stretchers, paper masks and plastic gloves abandoned at the scene.
Poles marking locations where bodies had been found in the field had also been removed.
Russian news agency Ria Novosti said a train with five refrigerated carriages carrying the corpses departed on Sunday from a station close to the main crash site and was heading for rebel stronghold Donetsk.
Monitors from European security body OSCE inspected the carriages at Torez station, Ria Novosti said, quoting them as saying a total of 198 bodies were on board — presumably recovered from across the vast crash site.
Local emergency crews, also absent from the crash site Sunday, declined to comment when contacted by telephone but said that the separatists would be releasing an official statement later.
Earlier, the Ukraine government said it had reached a preliminary deal with the pro-Russia separatists who control the plane crash site to remove the bodies.
News reports of how the bodies have been decaying for days in the summer sun have ignited outrage worldwide, especially from the Netherlands, home to over half the 298 victims.
Ukraine and the separatists accuse each other of firing a surface-to-air missile Thursday at Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur some 33,000 feet (10,000 meters) above the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. Both deny the charge.
The US has pointed blame at the separatists, saying Washington believes the jetliner was probably downed by an SA-11 missile from rebel-held territory and “we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel.”
(With AP and AFP inputs)