WASHINGTON – The Obama administration expanded its case Sunday accusing Ukrainian separatists and Russian forces of working hand in hand to acquire and operate a missile battery believed to have shot down a Malaysia Airlines jetliner last week, killing nearly 300 people.
Citing an enormous amount of evidence, Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russia of providing SA-11 anti-aircraft missiles to the pro-Russian rebels and training them on how to fire the advanced weapons. He also said U.S. intelligence agencies saw the launch of a missile from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine and recorded its trajectory at the moment the passenger plane vanished from radar.
Meanwhile, in Kiev, the U.S. Embassy said American intelligence analysts had confirmed the authenticity of recorded conversations in which rebel leaders bragged about shooting down what they thought was a Ukrainian military transport plane moments after the Malaysian jetliner was blown apart. The Ukrainian government had previously aired the audio excerpts, but the U.S. statement vouching for their reliability buttressed the charges against the rebels.
The fresh allegations came as armed separatists maintained tight control over the crash site in eastern Ukraine, preventing outside investigators from conducting an independent forensic examination of what caused the midair disaster.
Three days after the crash, Ukrainian rebels moved the decomposing bodies of about 200 victims to refrigerated railway cars at a nearby train station but continued to haggle with their enemies in the Ukrainian government over what to do with the remains.
Temperatures in eastern Ukraine have reached the mid-80s, and the bodies were rapidly decomposing in the fields and villages where they fell.
The stench was absolutely overwhelming in the refrigerated trains, said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has sent international observers to the site. I don’t want to be too gruesome, but it’s a very difficult scene to watch.
Bociurkiw said local officials and rebel representatives planned to leave the railway cars in place until international experts could inspect them and provide guidance.
The thinking is that the cars should be taken to Ukrainian-controlled territory and they should be processed there, he said.
A spokesman for the rebels, Sergey Kavtaradze, confirmed that the separatists had moved the bodies but said they were ready to hand the remains over to authorities in Kiev.
Finally we’ve placed them in a train, and now we are waiting for the experts to come, he said. We’re expecting Kiev to tell us where to take these bodies.
The rebels had come under withering criticism from officials in Kiev, Washington, Kuala Lumpur, the Hague and European capitals who claimed they had failed to show respect for the dead – most of whom were Dutch citizens, flying from Amsterdam to Malaysia – and failed to preserve the integrity of the crime scene. The separatists have denied shooting down the plane, suggesting that the Ukrainian government was instead probably responsible.
On Sunday, the rebels sought to bring a measure of order to the crash site. As many as 800 people were drafted to comb the area for bodies and debris, according to Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who has been leading negotiations with the separatists. The search effort, however, remained under the direct control of the rebels, he said.
Separatists said they found two devices that they believe are the jetliner’s black boxes, which could contain valuable flight information about the last moments of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Kavtaradze, the rebel spokesman, said the devices were under the personal watch of leader Alexander Borodai.
We have found the technical devices that potentially might be the black box, Kavtaradze said. Experts should determine this. We expect Malaysian experts to come today, and we will give the technical devices to them. We will not provide those things to the Ukrainian side.
The condition of the black boxes – and who ends up controlling them – could play a key role in the crash investigation.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian security service released audio recordings of what they said were rebel leaders talking on the phone two days earlier about the importance of keeping the black boxes out of the hands of international investigators. According to the intercepted calls, whose authenticity could not be independently verified, a rebel commander issued orders at the behest of our high-placed friends in Moscow to maintain close watch over the boxes.
U.S. and Ukrainian government officials have accused the rebels of destroying evidence, obstructing outside investigators and covering their tracks. Russian officials have not responded to the accusations that their forces supplied SA-11 units and training to the rebels.