The surreal disaster that is the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is somehow getting even worse: According to a number of reports, pro-Russia rebels have seized control of the passengers’ remains. So far, Ukrainian emergency responders have recovered 196 bodies from the field where the Boeing 777 crashed on Thursday. However, the Ukrainian government and the workers themselves said that they have been forced to turn the remains over to the separatists, who have been closely watching the recovery effort. “They are armed and we are not,” one responder explained.
Most of the bodies have reportedly been placed in three or four refrigerated train cars in Torez, a separatist-controlled town near the crash site. Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council spokesman Andriy Lysenko told journalists that around 38 of the bodies may have been taken to a morgue in Donetsk, which is also controlled by the separatists.
Michael Bociurkiw, the head observer from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told the New York Times that rebels “escorted” him and his colleagues to the railroad station, where they “were permitted to make a brief inspection” of the locked train cars containing the bodies, which he said had been placed in bags and tagged.
Back at the crash site, rebels “strictly monitored” the movements of OSCE representatives, four Ukrainian government investigators, and journalists. Meanwhile, the Times reports that the “hundreds” of untrained locals who were allowed to search the area could be seen “picking through the wreckage with sticks.”
On Saturday, John Kerry said that the United States was “very concerned” about reports that the victims’ bodies and Flight 17 debris were being mishandled. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, whose country lost 193 citizens on the plane, also expressed his concern in a statement: “I am shocked by the images of completely disrespectful behavior at this tragic place. In defiance of all the rules of proper investigation, people have evidently been picking through the personal and recognizable belongings of the victims. This is appalling.”
And then there’s the matter of the Boeing’s black boxes, which rebel Alexander Borodai said his people found on Sunday. The Wall Street Journal reports that Borodai said “he is ready to hand [the flight data recorders] over to the international aviation experts, but not to the Ukrainians.”
At almost the same time, the Ukrainian government released what it said were intercepted recordings of separatists frantically looking for the black boxes and plotting to keep them away from international investigators. The conversations, which Ukraine said happened on Friday, seem to suggest that some people in Russia are worried about being linked to what happened to the plane. From The WSJ:
“Moscow asks where the boxes are,” said a commander to a member of a rebel search crew, according to the recording. “We need to find out quickly.”
In one recording [a rebel commander] tells a subordinate member of a search crew “I have a task s – it is not my task. Our comrades from on high are very interested in the fate of the black boxes. What I mean is Moscow … make sure that everything that is found doesn’t fall into the hands of strangers.”
While the rebels continue to deny that they shot down Flight 17, everyone else — with the possible exception of Vladimir Putin — seems quite sure that the pro-Russia separatists caused the wreck. On Sunday, Kerry also said that “extraordinary circumstantial evidence” indicated that Russia gave them the weapon that hit the Boeing. “There’s a stacking up of evidence here, which Russia needs to help account for,” said Kerry on Meet the Press. “We are not drawing the final conclusion here. But there is a lot that points at the need for Russia to be responsible.”
Elsewhere, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Putin must force the rebels to “finally allow rescuers and investigators to have free and total access” to the crash site. Hollande added that, if the situation isn’t fixed quickly, “EU foreign ministers may take action against Russia at a meeting Tuesday.” What will happen between now and then is anyone’s guess.