HRABOVE, Ukraine — Armed rebels forced emergency workers to hand over all 196 bodies recovered from the Malaysia Airlines crash site and had them loaded Sunday onto refrigerated train cars bound for a rebel-held city, Ukrainian officials and monitors said.
The surprising 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.
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 on the flight — 283 passengers and 15 crew — were killed.
Ukraine says Russia has been sending sophisticated arms to the rebels, a charge that Moscow denies.
Meanwhile, diplomats said the U.N. Security Council could vote as early as today on a resolution proposed by Australia demanding international access to the plane crash site in Ukraine and a cease-fire around the area. But Australia and Russia late Sunday were still working out key differences, and Britain accused Moscow of using “delaying tactics.”
The resolution calls for pro-Russia separatists to allow access to the site.
Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Moscow is concerned that the draft “does not accurately reflect the need for an impartial, international investigation.”
He said Russia is proposing that the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency, take the lead in the investigation.
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, journalists saw no bodies and no armed rebels at the crash site. Emergency workers were searching the sprawling fields only for body parts.
It was not immediately clear Sunday whether the rebels and the Ukrainian government were working together or at odds with each other on recovering the bodies — and from their comments, many officials didn’t appear to know either.
Separatists were not immediately available for comment Sunday. Despite the restrictions seen by journalists and observers at the crash site, separatist leader Alexander Borodai insisted Saturday that the rebels have not interfered with the work of observers.
Nataliya Khuruzhaya, a duty officer at the train station in Torez, 9 miles from the crash site, said she saw emergency workers loading plane victims’ bodies Sunday morning into five sealed, refrigerated train cars.
She said the train was scheduled to head to the town of Ilovaisk, southwest of Torez and east of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, but no instructions had been given about when it would leave or any possible destinations beyond Ilovaisk.
Russian news agencies said the bodies were heading to Donetsk. Ukrainian officials say they expected to have the bodies eventually delivered to government-held city of Kharkiv, but it’s unclear whether the rebels will agree to do so.
Vasily Khoma, deputy of governor of the Kharkiv region, where Ukraine has set up a crisis center to handle the disaster, said the Ukrainian state railway company had provided the refrigerated train cars.
He said no information was available on when airplane parts would be brought to the city and said the priority now was on recovering bodies.
Earlier, Ukrainian Emergency Ministry spokeswoman Nataliya Bystro said workers at the crash site were forced to hand over the 196 bodies they had recovered to the armed rebels.
“Where they took the bodies — we don’t know,” Bystro said, adding that she had no information about the other 102 victims’ bodies.
However, Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said some bodies were probably incinerated without a trace.
“We’re looking at the field where the engines have come down. This was the area which was exposed to the most intense heat. We do not see any bodies here. It appears that some have been vaporized,” he said Sunday.
Alexander Pilyushny, an emergency worker combing the site Sunday, told the AP it took the rebels hours Saturday to cart away the bodies. He said he and other workers had no choice but to hand over the bodies.
“They are armed, and we are not,” Pilyushny said.
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