Bodies of victims removed from MH17 crash site

Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry carry a body at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on Saturday. Picture: REUTERS

Members of the Ukrainian Emergency Ministry carry a body at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on Saturday. Picture: REUTERS

Armed rebels forced emergency workers to hand over all 196 bodies recovered from the Malaysia Airlines crash site and then loaded them onto refrigerated trains bound for a rebel-held city, officials and monitors said on Sunday.

At the crash site on Sunday morning, Associated Press journalists saw no bodies and no armed rebels. Emergency workers were searching the sprawling fields only for body parts.

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

She said the train was scheduled to head to the town of Ilovaysk, 35 kilometres further east towards 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 expect to have the bodies eventually delivered to government-held city of Kharkiv, but it’s unclear if the rebels will agree to do so.

Alexander Pilyushny, an emergency worker combing the site for body parts, said it took the rebels several hours  to take away the bodies. He said he and others had no choice but to give the bodies to the rebels because ‘‘they are armed, and we are not’’.

‘‘The rebels came, put the bodies onto the trucks and took them away somewhere,’’ Mr Pilyushny said.

Earlier reports had described a farce, the site run by a man who dubbed himself ‘‘Commander Grumpy’’ and acted out by amateurs under a veil of secrecy, confusion and denial, while international observers looked helplessly on.

Masked gunmen controlling the site told a Buzzfeed journalist they were under the command of the Donetsk People’s Republic general prosecutor Ramil Halikiv.

The rebel commander who said he was in charge of guarding the site identified himself as Commander Grumpy – ‘‘because I get grumpy when I spend too much time away from destroying Ukrainian BMPs [armoured fighting vehicles] and tanks. You don’t want to see me grumpy’’. He  said he did not know where the bodies would be taken. ‘‘Maybe they will go here, maybe there,’’ he said.

Relatives of the dead are expected to start arriving in Ukraine over the next few days, but it seems they may find only delay and frustration.  The bodies, some whole, some not, some burned, some apparently looted for their belongings, had spent more than two days in the humid warmth of the region.

On Friday night, Ukraine claimed, the separatists moved in to do what they had prevented others from doing: recovering bodies. 

The Ukraine government said 38 of the bodies had been picked up and taken to a morgue in Donetsk city, where Russian experts would perform autopsies.

Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council, accused the rebels of trying to hide evidence inside the remains that could incriminate them in the attack.

On Saturday, journalists tried to establish what was going on at the Donetsk morgue. Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri saw a refrigerated truck  driven by a rebel waiting to drive out to collect more bodies. The DPR’s self-proclaimed health minister first confirmed to her that the previous night’s collection had been moved to the morgue, but then denied it.

Guards at the morgue told Moshiri they would not move the bodies, and they were waiting for international experts to arrive.

At the crash site, hundreds of separatists wielding heavy weapons  eventually let through a convoy from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, a body set up by international governments to act as observers in conflict zones.

The group’s spokesman, Michael Bociurkiw, said the militants in control of the site had granted his team more access than on Friday, when they first arrived and were only permitted 75 minutes before being told to leave.  Mr Bociurkiw’s 24-strong team witnessed unidentified emergency personnel moving the bodies. ‘‘There are ‘experts’ here who brought body bags with them. They are moving the bodies to the side of the road,’’ he said., with AP