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Bodies of crash victims in hands of rebels
Refrigerated train cars ferry 196 dead

An emergency worker removes bodies from the crash site on Saturday. (AP)

Grabove, Ukraine, July 20 (AP): Armed rebels forced emergency workers to hand over all 196 bodies recovered from the Malaysia Airlines crash site and then had them loaded onto refrigerated train cars bound for a rebel-held city, Ukrainian officials and monitors said today.

The surprising, rapid-fire developments this 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 were tampering with the evidence.

Ukraine and the separatists accuse each other of firing a surface-to-air missile on Thursday at Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur some 33,000ft above the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. Both deny shooting down the plane. All those onboard 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.

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 labouring under duress, overseen by the armed rebels.

AP journalists saw reeking bodies baking in the summer heat yesterday, piled into body bags by the side of the road or still sprawled where they landed in the verdant farmland in eastern Ukraine.

By this morning, AP 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 immediately not clear today if 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 to comment.

Nataliya Khuruzhaya, a duty officer at the train station in Torez, 15km from the crash site, said she saw emergency workers loading plane victims’ bodies this morning into five sealed, refrigerated train cars.

She said the train was scheduled to head to the town of Ilovaysk, 35km further east toward the Russian border, but no instructions had been given about when it would leave or any possible destinations beyond Ilovaysk.

Russian news agencies said the bodies were heading to the rebel stronghold of Donetsk. Ukrainian officials say they expected to have the bodies eventually delivered to government-held city of Kharkiv, but it’ unclear if the rebels will agree to do so.

The deputy of the governor of the Kharkiv region, where the Ukrainian government has set up a crisis centre to coordinate its response to the disaster, said the Ukrainian state railway company had provided the refrigerated train cars.

Earlier in the day, Ukrainian emergency ministry spokesperson Nataliya Bystro said workers at the crash site were forced to hand over the 196 bodies they had recovered to the armed gunmen who controlled the territory.

“Where they took the bodies — we don’t know,” Bystro said, adding she had no information either about the other 102 victims’ bodies.

Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesperson for monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said some bodies have likely been 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 vaporised,” he told reporters in Kiev, speaking via phone from the crash site.

Black box

A leader of separatists today said they were keeping what they presumed to be the black boxes from the downed Malaysian airliner in Donetsk, but would need experts to confirm that they were the plane’s flight recorders, Reuters reported.