KHARKIV, Ukraine: Dutch experts yesterday prepared to fly out bodies recovered from downed Malaysian flight MH17, as Europe moved to punish Russia for fanning the rebellion in east Ukraine that it believes led to the crash.
A train carrying the remains of the victims arrived in the government-held Ukrainian city of Kharkiv five days after the jet was brought down, after rebels controlling the crash site finally released the bodies and plane’s black boxes under intense international pressure. But that was only the first leg of the long journey home for many of the 298 crash victims, with the bodies to be flown today first to the Netherlands, which had 193 citizens aboard the doomed flight and is taking the lead in investigating the disaster.
It would also be the start of a complex investigation and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned that the identification of the bodies alone could take months as experts from the Netherlands said they were only sure 200 bodies had been delivered so far.
A truce has been declared by rival sides around the impact site, but close by fighting raged on as government troops pushed on with an offensive to wrest control of east Ukraine’s industrial heartland from the pro-Moscow rebels.
Around 1,000 people have been killed in the 15-week conflict, almost a third of those victims of the plane crash that had brought Ukraine’s war at the doorstep of countries as far away as Australia and Indonesia.
In Brussels, European foreign ministers decided to prepare defence sector sanctions against Moscow, accused of arming the rebels who allegedly shot down MH17 and the EU was due to announce a new list of sanction targets, including Russian personalities and entities, on Thursday. After intense international focus on what world leaders denounced as a “shambolic” situation at the crash site, rebels handed over two black boxes, which record cockpit activity and flight data, to Malaysian officials.
The rebels followed Kiev in announcing a ceasefire around the impact site in a move that should help international investigators examine the vast area, a forensic minefield littered with poignant fragments from hundreds of destroyed lives.
Elsewhere in Ukraine’s east, fighting was continuing with local authorities in the besieged cities of Donetsk and Lugansk reporting 10 civilians killed in 24 hours and Ukraine’s military saying 13 soldiers had died.
As artillery fire rang out in Donetsk, a fighter, who declined to be named said: “They’re firing on civilians! These are Ukrainians! They have become like wild animals.” Kiev reported on Tuesday that it had retaken Severodonetsk -- an industrial city of about 100,000 inhabitants around 120 kilometres from rebel stronghold Donetsk.
In a sign tensions are still running high a senior security official in Kiev claimed that Russia had massed over 40,000 soldiers along its border over the past week.
And leaders from nine ex-Communist NATO member states were meeting in Warsaw to discuss how to boost defence of the alliance’s eastern flank as they face a resurgent Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has borne the brunt of international fury, on Tuesday pledged to “do everything” to influence the separatists and ensure a full probe into the crash.
At the same time, he put the ball back in Kiev’s court, saying that Ukrainian military offensive in the east was posing a danger to international investigators there.