International monitors moved gingerly Saturday through fields reeking of the decomposing corpses that fell from a Malaysian airliner shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine, trying to secure the sprawling site in hopes that a credible investigation can be conducted.
But before inspectors ever reach the scene, doubts arose about whether evidence was being compromised.
The Ukrainian government and separatist rebels accuse each other of firing a surface-to-air missile at the Boeing 777 with almost 300 people aboard. Many see the hand of Russia, either for its suspected support of the insurgents or perhaps for firing the missile itself.
The government in Kiev said militiamen had removed 38 bodies from the crash site near the Russian border and taken them to the rebel-held city of Donetsk. It said the remains were transported with help from specialists with distinct Russian accents. The rebels also are “seeking large transports to carry away plane fragments to Russia,” the Ukrainian government said Saturday.
In Donetsk, separatist leader Alexander Borodai denied that any bodies had been transferred or that the rebels had in any way interfered with the work of observers. He said he encouraged the involvement of the international community in assisting with the cleanup before the bodies deteriorate further.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said it was deeply concerned that the separatists had refused to allow monitors safe and unfettered access to the crash site. A spokeswoman said the site was not secured and noted multiple reports about bodies being removed, debris taken away, and potential evidence tampered with.
The jet flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur carried 298 passengers and crew from 13 countries. More than half were Dutch.
Treatment of the victims’ remains, left in the open under a hot summer sun punctuated by bursts of rain, provoked outrage and distress.
“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. “People are angry, are furious at what they hear.”