HRABOVE, Ukraine (AP) — Separatist rebels have spirited away all 196 bodies that workers recovered from the Malaysia Airlines crash site to an unknown location, Ukraine’s emergency services said Sunday.
Associated Press journalists saw the pro-Russia rebels putting bagged bodies onto trucks at the crash site Saturday in rebel-held eastern Ukraine and driving them away. On Sunday morning, AP journalists saw no bodies and no armed rebels at the crash site and emergency workers were searching the sprawling fields only for body parts.
Ukraine and the separatists accuse each other of firing a surface-to-air missile Thursday at Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur some 33,000 feet (10,000 meters) above the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. Both deny shooting down the plane. All those onboard the flight – 283 passengers and 15 crew – were killed.
Ukraine says Russia has been sending sophisticated arms to the rebels, which Moscow denies. The crash site is close to the Russian border.
Ukrainian Emergency Ministry spokeswoman Nataliya Bystro said recovery workers in the rebel-held territory had been laboring under duress and were forced to give the bodies to the armed gunmen.
“Where they took the bodies – we don’t know,” Bystro told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Separatists were not immediately available to comment on her statement.
A spokeswoman for the international monitors at the crash site, Iryna Gudyma, later said some of the bodies had been loaded onto trains in the rebel-held town of Torez, 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the crash site. Speaking Sunday from the crash site by phone, she said she did not know how many bodies were in Torez.
News reports of how the bodies had been decaying for days in the summer sun had ignited outrage worldwide, especially from the Netherlands, home to over half the victims.
Alexander Pilyushny, an emergency worker combing the crash site for body parts Sunday morning, told the AP it took the rebels several hours to take away the bodies on Saturday. He said he and other workers had no choice but to hand the bodies over to the rebels.
“They are armed and we are not,” Pilyushny said. “The militiamen came, put the bodies onto the trucks and took them away somewhere.”
Neither Bystro nor Pilyushny could explain what happened to the 102 bodies of plane victims that have not yet been recovered.
Earlier, the Ukraine government claimed it had reached a preliminary deal with the separatists to remove the bodies.
The U.S. has pointed blame at the separatists, saying Washington believes the jetliner was probably downed by an SA-11 missile from rebel-held territory and “we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel.”
An Associated Press journalist saw a Buk missile launcher in rebel-held territory close to the crash site Thursday just hours before the plane was brought down.
The latest U.S. intelligence assessment suggests that more than one missile system was given to the separatists by the Russians in the last week or so. But both Russia and the rebels vehemently deny any role in downing the plane.
In a blistering article for the Sunday Times, British Prime Minister David Cameron called the attack a “direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias and training and arming them.”
“We must turn this moment of outrage into a moment of action,” he wrote.
In a coded attack on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders who have blocked efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Cameron said Europe must now “respond robustly.”
“For too long, there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine,” Cameron wrote.
Despite calls by world leaders for an independent, international investigation into the plane’s downing, armed separatists limited observers’ access to the crash site on Friday and Saturday.
“We have to be very careful,” said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the 24 international monitors. “We are unarmed civilians, so we are not in a position to argue with people with heavy arms.”
The U.S. State Department described the rebels’ refusal to give monitors a full access to the site “an affront to all those who lost loved ones and to the dignity the victims deserve.”
Despite the restrictions seen by journalists and observers at the crash site, separatist leader Alexander Borodai insisted the rebels have not in any way interfered with the work of observers.
The Dutch led the way in outrage over how the victims’ bodies were being treated.
“The news we got today of the bodies being dragged around, of the site not being treated properly, has really created a shock in the Netherlands,” Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told the Ukrainian president in Kiev on Saturday. “People are angry, are furious at what they hear.”
Timmermans demanded that the culprits be found.
“Once we have the proof, we will not stop until the people are brought to justice,” he said.
Putin and Merkel agreed Saturday in a phone call that an independent commission led by the International Civil Aviation Organization should be granted swift access to the crash site.
Peter Leonard in Kiev; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow; Nicholas Garriga in Hrabove, Ukraine and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.