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 U.S., 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.
Leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Australia spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone late Sunday, urging him to use his influence on the separatists to ensure the victims could be repatriated and international investigators could have full access to collect evidence. They said European foreign ministers will be meeting in Brussels Tuesday to consider further sanctions on Russia.
More than three days after the jetliner crashed, international investigators still had only limited access to the fields where the plane fell.
U.N. Security Council diplomats tweeted Sunday that the council would vote this afternoon on a draft resolution co-sponsored by Australia, France and Lithuania that would call for full access to the crash site and an independent investigation.
“Investigators must have immediate full access to MH17 crash site, & bodies treated with dignity,” British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant tweeted.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, in a blistering opinion piece for the Sunday Times, said “the growing weight of evidence” suggests the rebels shot down the plane, and if that is so, “this is a direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias and training and arming them.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose country lost 28 citizens in the tragedy, said Putin “said all the right things” during their telephone conversation about ensuring an international investigation into the disaster.
“I’m now going to try to ensure that as far as Australia humanly can, we insist upon these things happening,” Abbott told Sydney Radio 2GB today. “The site is being treated more like a garden cleanup than a forensic investigation, and this is completely unacceptable.”
Russian officials have blamed Ukraine’s government for creating the situation and atmosphere in which the plane was downed, but has yet to directly address the allegations that the separatists were responsible or were operating with technical assistance from Moscow.
The 42-square-mile crash site, spread out on farmland and villages, looked dramatically different Sunday, a day after armed rebels had stood guard while dozens of bodies lay in the heat. The rebels were gone, and 192 bodies were loaded into the refrigerated train cars in the rebel-held town of Torez, 9 miles away.
Emergency workers, who the rebels have allowed to operate under their control, were searching the sprawling fields. Cranes moved pieces of the plane around, apparently to look for more bodies underneath.
By Sunday night, Ukraine’s emergency services agency said the total number of bodies found was 251, with dozens of body parts.