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Rebels yield on probe and bodies

Kiev, July 21: After days of obstruction, Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine permitted Dutch forensics experts today to search the wreckage of the downed Malaysia Airlines jetliner destroyed by a surface-to-air missile, and allowed bodies of the victims to be evacuated by train.

They also agreed to give the plane’s flight recorder boxes to the Malaysian government.

The movements, four days after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 exploded and crashed in an eastern Ukraine wheat field, came as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia faced a growing international clamour to clear the way for a full and unimpeded investigation of the disaster.

Putin was confronting the threat of new EU sanctions and new admonishments by President Obama, as suspicions grew that the separatists had downed the plane with a Russian antiaircraft weapon.

Putin and Russian military officials continued to deny that they had anything to do with the disaster and suggested that some of the purported evidence had been fabricated by Ukraine and its western backers.

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, in a live broadcast today in Kuala Lumpur, said his government had reached an agreement with the Ukrainian separatists to gain control of the bodies, which were to be sent to the Netherlands, and the so-called black boxes recovered from the crash site.

Najib said the boxes were to be handed over to Malaysian representatives in Donetsk, a city that has been the subject of frequent fighting between the Ukrainian military and separatists and where new clashes erupted today.

If the separatists honour the agreement, it would be a diplomatic success for Najib, whose government has been reluctant to cast blame for the airline disaster, the second to confront Malaysia in the past four months. Obama, in a televised statement from the White House, said that despite the advances today, the Ukraine separatists continued to obstruct international investigators and that relatives of the 298 victims were in a “state of shock and outrage” over the delays so far in recovering the bodies. Obama said Russia would only “further isolate itself” if it did not act more assertively to rein in the separatists.

At a news briefing in Kiev late this afternoon, deputy Prime Minister Volodymr Groysman, who is leading the Ukrainian government’s response to the jetliner downing, said a train carrying bodies in four refrigerated rail cars from the town of Torez would go to Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine, outside the rebel-held area. The train departed at 7pm local time for a journey that was expected to take hours.

More than half the victims of the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight were Dutch, and the others came from more than half a dozen countries.

Groysman said that 282 bodies had been found and loaded onto the train, as well as dozens of body parts from as many as 16 other victims, suggesting that officials believed they had recovered most of the remains of the passengers and crew from the Boeing 777.

He said that from Kharkiv, the bodies would be flown to Amsterdam, where they would be taken to a laboratory with the latest forensic technology. European leaders threatened new sanctions on Russia as soon as tomorrow.

Putin issued a brief statement early today 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”.

 
 
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