Ukraine and pro-Russian insurgents agreed on Saturday to set up a security zone around 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 immediate cooperation in a prompt and independent probe into the shooting down on Thursday of flight MH17 with 298 people on board.
A team of nearly 30 monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were to try and gain access to the grisly crash site on Saturday after meeting resistance from armed rebels the day before.
But they face a massive challenge in gathering evidence that could definitively determine why the flight ended prematurely in a lawless region where Ukrainian forces have thus far been unable to exert control.
More investigators arrived overnight from the Netherlands — home to 192 of the victims — and Malaysia amid calls for unfettered access to the scene as Kiev accused the rebels of trying to destroy crash evidence “with Russian support.”
Rebels backed up by strong diplomatic support from the kremlin remain in control of the area and have shown few signs of being ready to cooperate with an investigation that could potentially blame them for attacking the jet.
And an agreement to set up a buffer zone came only after two days of intense international mediation and has yet to be fully put to the test.
The sunflower fields of the war-ravaged former Soviet nation remained littered with dismembered remains of scarred bodies and personal effects such as slippers of 298 people whose lives were cut short as they flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed by phone that “all countries should engage to ensure that pro-Russian separatists grant investigators secure and unhindered access to the crash site,” Downing Street said.
The head of the Ukrainian Security Service announced on Saturday that OSCE-mediated talks “concluded with an agreement to set up a 20-kilometre (12-mile) security zone so that Ukraine could fulfil the most important thing — identify the bodies (and) hand them over to relatives.”
But the pro-Kiev administration of the Donetsk province where the doomed flight ended so abruptly alleged that militias in control of the area “had stolen the bodies of 36 victims (and) loaded them onto truck as if they were sacks.”
There was no independent confirmation of the claim or explanation from the local authorities as to why the rebels would remove bodies from the scene.
Ukrainian rescue workers said they had recovered 186 bodies thus far.
Fighting also raged on across the 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 capital of its own “People’s Republic” — and launching all-out offensives against two nearby towns.
Government troops said they had also entered 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.
– ‘Wake-up call’ –
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 Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the tragedy on Kiev’s three-month military campaign against the fighters and called for a probe that could explain why the jet was flying over a combat zone.
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.
“If the rebels are responsible, this episode will likely speed the broadening of financial, energy, and possibly other sector sanctions against Russia,” analysts at the Eurasia Group said.
– 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.