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Plane crash bodies removed from war zone

A woman cries during a religious service held by villagers in memory of the victims at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, July 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

KHARKIV, Ukraine: A train bearing victims of the downed Malaysian airliner reached Ukrainian government-held territory at long last Tuesday, but the pro-Russian separatists in control of the crash site showed little willingness to allow the full-scale investigation demanded by world leaders.

Despite anger over the rebels’ handling of the wreckage and suspicions they shot the plane down, the European Union spared Russia sweeping new sanctions. The EU imposed punitive measures against Russian individuals but didn’t target entire sectors of the economy, preferring to wait for a clearer picture of last week’s disaster and Moscow’s suspected role.

Five days after the plane was blown out of the sky, a refrigerated train bearing victims’ bodies – gathered up after several days in the sun – finally rolled out of the war zone and into a weedy rail yard in the government-held city of Kharkiv.

It was unclear how many of the 282 corpses found so far were on the train. The crash killed all 298 people aboard the jumbo jet.

Dutch experts said they were only sure 200 bodies had been delivered so far – fewer than what the pro-Russian rebels had promised. International monitors also said some remains were left rotting under the sweltering summer heat in the vast crash site.

“There were human remains that had not been picked up,” said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission to Ukraine after visiting the impact site.

“We did observe changes at the site. The fuselage has been moved. It appears that the cone section is split in two and it appears that the tail fin has been moved,” he said.Despite these and other indications of progress – the black boxes were handed over to Malaysia Airlines, and three airline investigators were given access to the site Tuesday – there was no sign of a full investigation.

The wreckage lay unguarded across a wide stretch of farmland in the rebel-held east – a source of frustration for officials around the world eager to establish the facts. Even the red-and-white tape that had sealed off the fields had been torn away.

As the fighting went on in eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at Ukraine’s military for trying to dislodge the rebels.

In Moscow, Putin said Russia would do “everything in its power” to facilitate the investigation, including putting pressure on the rebels.

But he said that “was not enough” to resolve the situation. He challenged the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government, saying, “People came to power in an armed, anti-constitutional way.”

In Brussels, EU foreign ministers urged Russia to use its influence over the rebels to ensure an independent investigation. In a statement, they said they want “all those in the area to preserve the crash site intact.”

The 28-nation EU targeted more Russian officials with economic sanctions and travel bans. The ministers stopped there for now but asked the EU’s executive arm to draw up more sweeping measures by Thursday if Russia fails to cooperate. Those sanctions would target Russia’s high-tech, energy and weapons industries.

“Russia has not done enough to contribute to a de-escalation of the conflict,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

The EU is Russia’s biggest trading partner, and some members are wary of doing too much to antagonize Moscow.

The euro fell to its lowest point this year against the dollar amid fear the downing of the jet will further damage EU-Russia relations.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2014, on page 1.

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