KUALA LUMPUR/DONETSK, Ukraine: Malaysia has reached an agreement with Aleksander Borodai, leader of the separatist group in eastern Ukraine, to retrieve the bodies of the victims of MH17, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Tuesday.
They have also reached an agreement to hand over the two black boxes from the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER, which crashed in Ukraine on July 17 with 298 people on board, the prime minister told a news conference.
Independent international investigators have also been guaranteed safe access to the crash site to begin a full investigation, he said.
“In recent days, we have been working behind the scenes to establish contact with those in charge of the MH17 crash site. That contact has now been made,” Razak said in a televised speech.
“Under difficult and fluid circumstances, we have been discussing the problems that have occupied us all: securing vital evidence from the aircraft, launching an independent investigation and above all recovering the remains of those who lost their lives.”
Under the agreement, the remains of 282 people will be moved by train from Torez to Kharkiv. There, they will be handed over to representatives from the Netherlands. Razak did not say what had happened to the remaining bodies.
The train could take 10-12 hours to reach Ukrainian city Kharkiv after passing through rebel-held territory, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.
Rutte said the train would travel through separatist-controlled Donetsk to Kharkiv, where the Dutch coordination center is to receive all 298 victims.
The remains will then be flown to Amsterdam on board a Dutch C130 Hercules military aircraft, together with six members of the Malaysian team who will be on the train.
After forensic work has been completed, the remains of Malaysian citizens will then be flown to Malaysia.
International investigators will be guaranteed safe access to the crash site and allowed to start an investigation, he said.
“I must stress that although agreement has been reached, there remain a number of steps required before it is completed,” Razak said.
“There is work still to be done, work which relies on continued communication in good faith. Mr. Borodai and his people have so far given their cooperation.”
Once this is done, the investigation can “truly begin,” he added so that “justice may be done.”
“In recent days, there were times I wanted to give greater voice to the anger and grief that the Malaysian people feel. And that I feel. But sometimes, we must work quietly in the service of a better outcome,” Razak said.
Against a background of international horror over the fate of the remains of the 298 victims of the Malaysia Airlines disaster, the first international investigators reached eastern Ukraine Monday.
Three members of a Dutch disaster victims identification team arrived at a railway station near the crash site where rebels say 247 bodies have been stored in refrigerated wagons.
The head of the team inspected the storage of the bodies in the rail cars and, despite an overwhelming stench of decomposition when the doors were opened, said it was fine.
“The storage of the bodies is of good quality,” said Peter van Vliet, whose team went through the wagons dressed in surgical masks and rubber gloves.
The United States and its allies have blamed the pro-Russian rebels for the downing of the plane.
Russia’s Defense Ministry challenged accusations that pro-Russian separatists were responsible for shooting down the airliner and said Ukrainian warplanes had flown close to it.
The ministry also rejected accusations that Russia had supplied the rebels with SA-11 Buk anti-aircraft missile systems – the weapon said by Kiev and the West to have downed the airliner – “or any other weapons.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid out what he called overwhelming evidence of Russian complicity in the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane, and expressed disgust at how the bodies of the victims had been treated at the crash site.
“Drunken separatists have been piling bodies into trucks and removing them from the site,” he said on NBC television Sunday.
“What’s happening is really grotesque and it is contrary to everything President Putin and Russia said they would do.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he had spoken to Putin for the first time about the disaster. At least 27 Australians were on the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
He said there had been some improvement with the Ukrainian government offering access.
“But there’s still a hell of a long way to go before anyone could be satisfied with the way that site is being treated,” Abbott said. “It’s more like a garden cleanup than a forensic investigation. This is completely unacceptable.”
Putin, in a televised address, said the downing of the airliner must not be used for political ends and urged separatists to allow international experts access to the crash site.
European Union foreign ministers are due to meet Tuesday and could announce more sanctions. Britain is pushing for tougher measures, and Italy said it expected a “strong and unified response.”
But the most the EU is expected to do Tuesday is to speed up implementation of sanctions against individuals, and possibly companies, agreed in principle last week before the plane was brought down.
The shooting down of the airliner has sharply deepened the Ukrainian crisis, in which separatists in the Russian-speaking east have been fighting government forces since protesters in Kiev forced out a pro-Moscow president and Russia annexed Crimea in March.
Fighting flared in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk Monday, leaving four people dead, health officials said.
The government in Kiev denied sending the regular army into the center of Donetsk, which pro-Russian separatists captured in April, but said small “self-organized” pro-Ukrainian groups were fighting the rebels in the city.
Artillery fire sent plumes of smoke skyward in Donetsk, around 60 km from the crash site, in what the separatists said was an attempt by government forces to enter the city they seized in April. The clashes quickly subsided.
Donetsk is at the heart of a rebel uprising against rule by Kiev, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has vowed to retake the city as part of what Kiev calls its “anti-terrorist operation” against the separatists.