KIEV, Ukraine — Dutch forensics experts finally gained access Monday to the remains of the victims from the downed Malaysia Airlines jet in eastern Ukraine after days of standoffs over access to the site and growing pressure on President Vladimir Putin of Russia to clear the way for a full international investigation.
European leaders threatened new sanctions on Russia as soon as Tuesday, suggesting they were increasingly open to the harder line being taken against Moscow by the United States, which has accused Russia of providing the surface-to-air missile system that brought down the jetliner, training rebels in how to use it, and perhaps even supplying experts who helped to fire it.
Putin issued a brief statement early Monday saying that Russia would work to ensure that the conflict in eastern Ukraine moved from the battlefield to the negotiating table. He said that a robust international investigating team must have secure access to the crash site, but also accused unspecified nations of exploiting the disaster in pursuit of “mercenary political goals.”
Even as the Dutch experts arrived Monday in the town of Torez in eastern Ukraine, where the bodies of the victims have been collected in refrigerated rail cars, the Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, said pro-Russian rebels who control the area were preventing the train from leaving.
The body identification experts, wearing shirts bearing the insignia of the forensics unit of the Dutch national police, donned blue latex gloves and put masks over their mouths and noses as they made an initial inspection of bodies that lay in black trash bags piled toward the back of one wagon. They repeated the process in two other train cars.
The Dutch experts were accompanied by representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been conducting an international monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine and quickly sent observers to the plane wreckage site, where they said their efforts were limited by rebels until Sunday, when they were granted broader access.
As the experts began their work, heavy fighting, including mortar shelling, was underway between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military in the nearby regional capital of Donetsk, a rebel stronghold about 50 miles from the crash site. A spokesman for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Sergei Vladimirovich, said the government forces had begun pushing into the city from the northwest, near a market by the main train station, and a witness reported seeing heavy shelling in the area including damage at a children’s hospital.
“A fight is going on,” he said by telephone. “There are casualties, but we don’t know how many. We are still trying to figure out what is happening.” A Ukrainian military spokesman, Vladislav Seleznyov, would not provide give details, citing military secrecy, but confirmed the fighting, calling it “an active phase of the antiterrorist operation.”
Shelling Monday near the main railroad station in Donetsk raised yet another possible obstacle for transporting the victims. Michael Bociurkiw, the lead spokesman for the OSCE monitoring mission, said Monday that there were reports of damage to the railroad tracks, which could halt train traffic coming from Torez, where the bodies have been collected.
Caught between the twin challenges of pressuring Putin over his backing for the insurgents and securing the Russian president’s support in gaining access to the crash site, European leaders on Monday maneuvered to overcome longstanding divisions about imposing significantly tighter sanctions on Moscow.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, whose country bore the brunt of the casualties, told parliament that “all political, economic and financial options” were available as the European Union prepared to debate measures further isolating the Russian leader.
“It is clear that Russia must use her influence on the separatists to improve the situation on the ground,” Rutte said, according to Reuters. “If in the coming days access to the disaster area remains inadequate, then all political, economic and financial options are on the table against those who are directly or indirectly responsible for that,” he said.
His words found an echo from George Osborne, the British chancellor of the Exchequer, who said Britain was prepared to tighten sanctions even if that meant losing Russian business in London’s economically vital financial services industry. “Any sanctions will have an economic impact, and we are prepared to undertake further sanctions,” he said in a BBC radio interview.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said he told Putin in telephone conversation Sunday that the world expects Russia to use its influence on the separatists to open up the crash site.
“The world also wants to see a real change in the stance Russia has taken over the crisis in Ukraine,” Cameron said he said during a visit to Wales in advance of a statement to parliament. “We need no more weapons crossing the border, no more troops crossing the border, no more support for the separatists, respect for Ukrainian territorial integrity.”
“In terms of sanctions,” he added, “I’m very clear, having spoken to Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, that the European Union will be ready for further steps in terms of other areas of, particularly, some forms of advanced industrial goods which might have dual uses for defense purposes as well.”
His remarks followed a telephone conversation over the weekend between the leaders of Britain, France and Germany who were reported to have agreed that their countries should be ready to use a meeting of the 28-nation European Union’s foreign ministers on Tuesday to introduce tougher sanctions.
Those comments a day after the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, said he was warning Putin “for the last time” to stabilize eastern Ukraine and halt the flow of weapons to separatists there. He called their handling of the victims, which the rebels seized from Ukrainian rescue workers, “grotesque.”
But some European governments are cautious about supporting sanctions that would provoke reprisals from Russia — a key source of energy supplies to many European nations.
Yatsenyuk said that the emergency services and hundreds of volunteers had gathered 272 bodies from fields near the village of Grabovo. He added, however, that the area, including the rail station, remained under the control of rebels and that the train carrying the bodies was not being allowed to leave.
“These bloody guerrillas do not allow the train to leave the area,” he said at a news conference in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Putin’s statement did not directly address the allegations that Russia supplied the weapon system and expertise needed to shoot down the plane. “Russia will do everything it can to shift the conflict in eastern Ukraine from today’s military stage to the stage of discussion at the negotiating table,” Putin said in video statement posted at 1:40 a.m. Monday, suggesting it emerged from a late-night discussion. It was unclear, however, whether such an indirect call to allow the investigation into the flight to proceed would satisfy the growing chorus of critics who have demanded that Putin intervene directly with the pro-Russian separatists.
In Kiev, Yatsenyuk condemned Russia and the rebels in harsh terms and said Ukraine wanted an international investigation to hold the separatists and their patrons accountable.
“Those who committed this international crime, those responsible will be held accountable,” Yatsenyuk said.
“Together with the entire international community, we will bring to justice everyone responsible,” he said, speaking in English, “including the country which is behind the scene, but supplied the illegal weapon, provided the financial support, trained these bastards and supported and even orchestrated this kind of despicable crime.”
Yatsenyuk demanded that Russia and its president address the allegations. “I urge the Russian government to respond to all questions that have been raised,” he said, adding later, “President Putin needs to understand, enough is enough”
Yatsenyuk said Ukraine was prepared to turn over control of the investigation to the Netherlands. Yatsenyuk cited a litany of evidence pointing to Russia’s complicity including photos of SA-11 missile systems in rebel territory, and communications between rebels and Russian security officials intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence.
In Donetsk, a thick plume of dark smoke could be seen rising into the bright blue afternoon sky. One man, a passenger in a blue car that was stopped at a red light, said two people in his building were killed in the fighting. He said he ran out of his house in nothing but his slippers.
The fighting in Donetsk killed a woman in the Kuibysheva neighborhood, which was hit in the morning, as she walked through a wooded courtyard near a small child’s playground, and two men were found dead nearby. A piece of clothing had been placed over her body, and pools of blood were drying in the sun. A grocery discount card was on the ground near the bloody outline where her body had been.
“They are trying to push the DNR back but they end up hitting us,” said Yevgeny Zhitnikov, a 17-year old resident of the city. “Victory is more important to them than human life.”
Said his father, who was arranging bags on the ground for the family to leave to a nearby bomb shelter: “Animals.”
A series of booms thumped through the courtyard consistent with the sound of a grad rocket. The rockets hit near dentist office complex and a library.
“Why are people suffering, for what?” said Galina Afrina, a 60-year old retired financial worker who was holding some compote she had made. “We are being told to evacuate.”
By 2:30 p.m., residents were leaving the neighborhood. A woman carrying a large gray cat rushed by. A man carrying a kitten walked a bicycle.
The rocket that killed the woman had punched a deep hole into the courtyard. Its shape indicated it had been come from the northwest, the area that the Ukrainian government controls.
When asked where the rockets were being coming from, a rebel who identified himself as Yenot gave a long slow shrug. “They can come from five to 40 kilometers,” he said. “Who knows.”
In Torez, about 40 miles east, where the bodies of Flight 17 victims were being held, the Dutch forensics specialists arrived about 11:30 a.m. and bowed their heads for a few seconds of silence. The first wagon was opened by a woman, apparently a railroad worker, in a tight satiny black skirt, tight white shirt and high wedge heels with purple straps.
After a preliminary inspection, Peter van Vliet, one of the Dutch investigators, said, “I think the storage of the bodies is of good quality.” He then turned away and walked back with his colleagues to the train, where OSCE workers said they would seal the wagons. The Ukrainian government had said it planned to base the investigation in the downing of the jet in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine’s biggest city, which lies around 190 miles north of the crash site and is under the control of the government in Kiev.
A larger team of forensic experts, including 23 from the Netherlands, two from Germany, two from the United States, and one from Britain, arrived in Kharkiv early Monday.
“We are here to get the bodies back to their countries and to their families. We will try our utmost to do this as quickly as possible,” Michel Oz, the group’s Dutch coordinator, said. But he added that it was still unclear whether the separatist rebels who control the crash site and the nearby railway station at Torez would allow a train loaded with corpses to leave for Kharkiv. “We have no information,” he said.
Oz said the international team now assembling in Kharkiv included experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a unit of the German federal police that handles the identification of disaster victims as well as officials from Britain and Australia. Malaysia is also due to join the effort.
An Australian official who declined to be identified voiced dismay that the bodies were effectively being held hostage by separatist rebels. “We have no idea what is going on and when we can get the bodies,” he said.
Igor Boluta, the governor of Kharkiv, complained that the separatists were frustrating efforts to identify corpses and return them to their families. “We are already here. We are prepared to receive the bodies but everything depends on getting an agreement” with the rebels, Boluta told reporters on Monday.
Putin’s statement did not directly address the allegations that Russia supplied the weapon system and expertise needed to shoot down the plane. “Russia will do everything it can to shift the conflict in eastern Ukraine from today’s military stage to the stage of discussion at the negotiating table,” Putin said in video statement posted at 1:40 a.m. on Monday, suggesting it emerged from a late-night discussion.
It was unclear, however, whether such an indirect call to allow the investigation into the flight to proceed would satisfy the growing chorus of critics who have demanded that Putin intervene directly with the pro-Russian separatists.