Ukraine Rebels Claim to Have Black Boxes, Moved Bodies to Trains
UPDATED: July 20, 2014 7:20 p.m.
DONETSK, Ukraine (WNEW/CBS News/AP) – Rebels have recovered the black boxes from downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and will hand them over to the International Civil Aviation Organization, a rebel leader said Sunday.
Pro-Moscow rebels piled nearly 200 bodies from the downed Malaysian jetliner into four refrigerated boxcars Sunday in eastern Ukraine, and cranes at the crash scene moved big chunks of the Boeing 777, drawing condemnation from Western leaders that the rebels were tampering with the site.
The United States, meanwhile, presented what it called “powerful” evidence that the rebels shot down the plane with a Russian surface-to-air missile and training. Although other governments have stopped short of accusing Russia of actually causing the crash, the U.S. was ahead of most in pointing blame on Moscow for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that killed all 298 people aboard.
“What we have is a lot of evidence that points in the direction, that raises very, very serious questions,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on “Face the Nation.”
Separatist leader Alexander Borodai also said the bodies recovered from the crash site in eastern Ukraine would remain in refrigerated train cars at a station in the rebel-held town of Torez until the arrival of an international aviation delegation.
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 above the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. Both deny shooting down the plane. All those onboard the flight – 283 passengers and 15 crew – were killed.
In another sign pointing to rebel, and Russian, responsibility for the shoot down, U.S. intelligence has detected movement of SA-11 surface-to-air-missiles – the same type responsible for downing the airliner – from rebel-held areas of Ukraine into Russian territory, CBS News chief national security correspondent David Martin reports.
The latest intelligence, combined with the fact that U.S. officials are confident they know where all the SA-11’s belonging to the Ukrainian military are located, adds to what Secretary of State John Kerry is calling an “enormous amount of evidence” that Russia supplied the SA-11 that shot down the plane.
“What we have is a lot of evidence that points in the direction, that raises very, very serious questions, including the fact that a few weeks ago, we have 150-vehicle convoy coming from Russia, going into the east of Ukraine with tanks, artillery, multiple rocket launchers, armored personnel carriers, turned over to the separatists,” Kerry told CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” “We know that there are Russians who are leaders of the separatists. Some, not all. Some. And we know that the Russians have armed the separatists, trained the separatists, support the separatists, and have, to date, not publicly called on the separatists to stand down or to be part of the solution.”
Kerry added: “So there’s enormous amount of evidence, even more evidence than I just documented, that points to the involvement of Russia in providing these system, training the people on them.”
Moscow denies those charges.
The U.S. embassy in Kiev issued a strong statement pointing to Russian complicity in arming the rebels, saying it has concluded “that Flight MH17 was likely downed by a SA-11 surface-to-air missile from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.”
It said over the weekend of July 12-13, “Russia sent a convoy of military equipment with up to 150 vehicles, including tanks armored personnel carriers artillery, and multiple rockets launchers” to the separatists. The statement also said Russia was training separatist fighters in southwest Russia, including on air defense systems.
At the scene of the wreckage, it was immediately not clear Sunday if the rebels and the Ukrainian government were working together or at odds with each other on recovering the bodies. And from their comments, many of officials didn’t appear to know either.
A Ukrainian emergency spokeswoman said the armed rebels had forced emergency workers to hand over all 196 bodies recovered from the Malaysia Airlines crash site and did not tell them where the bodies were going. Ukrainian government officials, meanwhile, prepared a disaster crisis center in the government-held city of Kharkiv, expecting to receive the bodies, but those hopes appeared delayed or even dashed Sunday.
“The bodies will go nowhere until experts arrive,” Borodai said, speaking in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.
Borodai said he was expecting a team of 12 Malaysian experts and that he was disappointed at how long they had taken to arrive. He insisted that rebels had not interfered with the crash investigation, despite reports to the contrary by international monitors and journalists at the crash site.
The rapid-fire developments Sunday morning came after a wave of international outrage over how the bodies of plane crash victims were being handled and amid fears that the armed rebels who control the territory where the plane came down could be tampering with the evidence.
The rebels have been strictly limiting the movements of international monitors and journalists at the crash site, which is near the Russian border, and Ukraine’s Emergency Ministry said its workers were laboring under duress, overseen by the armed rebels.
Associated Press journalists saw reeking bodies baking in the summer heat Saturday, piled into body bags by the side of the road or still sprawled where they landed in the verdant farmland in eastern Ukraine after their plane was shot out of the sky.
By Sunday morning, AP journalists saw no bodies and no armed rebels at the crash site. Emergency workers were searching the sprawling fields only for body parts.
President Barack Obama called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine after the attack.
“This was a global tragedy,” Obama said. “An Asian airliner was destroyed in European skies filled with citizens from many countries, so there has to be a credible international investigation into what happened.”
The only American identified so far as a victim of the crash lived in New Jersey as a child and returned to the Netherlands when he was 5.
Quinn Lucas Schansman, 19, had dual Dutch-American citizenship.
His grandfather, Ronald Schansman, was visiting a relative in Woodbury, New Jersey when his son called him to tell him of his grandson’s death.
“You go through all the phases of mourning,” Schansman told Philadelphia’s WCAU-TV on Friday. “At the moment, it’s just mourning. And of course anger.”
The victims came from 13 countries and all walks of life. They included an acclaimed AIDS researcher from Amsterdam, a nun and teacher from Sydney, a Dutch senator and a World Health Organization spokesman.
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 rebuke of 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.
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.