DONETSK, Ukraine – Malaysia announced Monday that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have agreed to hand over the black boxes from a downed Malaysian airliner, send the remains of victims by train to Kharkiv and give international investigators safe access to the crash site.
Just before nightfall, a train left the eastern Ukrainian town of Torez with the remains of crash victims en route to the city of Kharkiv, where coffins flown in by the Dutch military awaited.
The remains, stored in five intermittently refrigerated rail cars, were to be turned over to Dutch officials, then flown to the Netherlands, where they will be identified and handed over to family members.
In a late-night speech in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Najib Razak said two black boxes from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 would be handed over Monday night to a Malaysian team in Donetsk. It was not immediately clear whether this had occurred on schedule.
Najib disclosed that Malaysian officials have been working behind the scenes to establish contact with those in charge of the MH17 crash site. He did not mention that members of the same separatist group have been accused of using a Russian-supplied antiaircraft missile to shoot down the airliner Thursday as it cruised over eastern Ukraine at 33,000 feet.
He said Malaysian officials have been working with the rebels in an effort to secure vital evidence and launch an independent investigation into the cause of the crash, as well as to recover remains.
He said he spoke to Alexander Borodai, the self-appointed prime minister of the rebel area, and the two agreed that the black boxes would be handed over.
Najib said the remains of 282 people were being handed over in Kharkiv, a city controlled by the Ukrainian government. He said the train would be accompanied by six Malaysian members of a recovery team and that the remains would then be flown to Amsterdam on board a Dutch C-130 Hercules transport plane.
Malaysia has a team of about 80 investigators in Kiev along with the country’s transport minister, Liow Tiong Lai, and high-ranking officials from Malaysia Airlines.
Najib spoke after President Barack Obama demanded that Russia use its influence to compel the pro-Russian separatists to allow the investigators full access to the victims and the crash site.
Noting that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has declared a demilitarized zone around the crash site near the Russian border, Obama said Monday that the rebels who control the area were blocking an investigation, removing evidence from the scene and mishandling the remains of passengers and crew among the 298 people who were killed when the plane was shot down.
The burden is now on Russia and President Vladimir Putin to insist that the separatists stop tampering with the evidence and grant immediate, full and unimpeded access to the crash site, Obama told reporters outside the White House. He said the United States would raise this issue at the United Nations.
In Donetsk, the Ukrainian military on Monday renewed its assault on the rebel-held city, even as international investigators in the region were trying to secure the remains of the Flight MH17 victims.
Explosions and artillery fire could be heard in central Donetsk from the direction of the city’s train station and airport, and a spokesman for the pro-Russian rebels said there was also fighting near the central market. Portions of the city 50 miles west of the crash site were closed off.
In an interview on CNN, Poroshenko said 16 bodies are still missing from the 298 killed in the crash. He said the rest are on refrigerated train cars that were supposed to depart the rebel-held town of Torez under international supervision.
Obama said foreign leaders he has called in recent days were in state of shock, but also frankly in a state of outrage over the shootdown and its aftermath.
Teams of international investigators need to be able to conduct a prompt and full and unimpeded, as well as a transparent, investigation, he said.
Rebel actions to block full access and remove evidence raise the question, what are they trying to hide? Obama said.