A refrigerated rail car carrying the bodies of 282 victims of a downed Malaysia airliner left for the Ukraine government-controlled city of Kharkiv on Monday en route to Amsterdam only hours after Dutch investigators were finally allowed to inspect them.
Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the remains would be taken first to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and then will be flown to the Netherlands.
A large pile of personal belongings was left on the station platform as the train pulled out, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. It added that none of the militia fighters at the site knew who gave the order for the train to pull out.
The train will first travel through Donetsk, a rebel stronghold, where it was going to be met by a Malaysian delegation. As it moves north, the train will quickly enter the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government.
Kharkiv, with a population of 1.4 million people, is only 180 miles northwest of Donetsk but well outside the disputed area where separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting..
In another sign of a break in the stalemate over the investigation of the Thursday crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the prime minister also said Russian-backed rebels had agreed to turn over the plane’s black boxes to a Malaysian team already in Ukraine.
Flight 17 was en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam with 283 passengers and 15 crewmembers when it crashed Thursday over rebel territory after it was hit by a surface-to-air missile. The Netherlands lost 193 citizens in the crash, more than any other nation.
The bodies of some of the victims have still not been recovered from the huge, debris-strewn crash site near the town of Hrabove.
The train’s departure from the town of Torez, near the crash site, was reported by the Associated Press and Reuters.
Separatist groups controlled the crash site area for five days and have given international investigators limited access to the area. After leaving bodies in the field for more than two days, the rebels organized teams over the weekend to begin moving the bodies to the refrigerated train car in Torez.
At the White House, President Obama called on Russia on Monday to get Russian-backed separatists to stop hampering the crash investigation and allow international experts free access to the crash site.
“The Russian backed separatists who control the area continue to block the investigation,” Obama said. “They’ve repeatedly prevented international investigators from gaining full access to the wreckage. As investigators approached, they fired their weapons into the air. The separatists are removing evidence from the crash site. All of which begs the question: What are they trying to hide?”
The arrival of Dutch forensics experts Monday came as the United Nations Security Council was preparing to vote on a resolution demanding international access to the crash site.
The Dutch investigators, led by Peter Van Vilet, climbed aboard to inspect the rail cars, surrounded by armed rebels. The Dutch National Forensic Investigations Team — which specializes in victim recovery and identification — also pressed for rebels to seal the train cars.The AP reported that the train, with the bodies, left the town late Monday afternoon.
AP journalists at the site said the smell of decay was overwhelming and many people wore masks or pressed cloths to their faces on the warm summer day.
A train engineer told the AP that a power outage had hit the cars’ refrigeration system overnight and it was not immediately clear why. The cooling system was working again early Monday, he said.
Armed rebels kept international inspectors at bay for days, prompting outrage from political leaders in the Netherlands and Australia, whose citizens were aboard the ill-fated jetliner.
“This is still an absolutely shambolic situation. It does look more like a garden cleanup than a forensic investigation,” Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Monday.
“Given the almost certain culpability of the Russian-backed rebels in the downing of the aircraft, having these people in control of the site is a little like leaving criminals in control of a crime scene,” Abbott added.
Obama, in his remarks Monday, said Russia and President Vladimir Putin had “a direct responsibility” to compel the separates to cooperate with the investigation. “That’s the least they can do,” he said.
Personnel from the Ukrainian Emergencies Ministry recover the bodies of victims at the Malaysia Airlines crash si
Although Russia and separatist leaders have denied responsibility for the shootdown, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday there was mounting evidence that a Russian-made missile, an SA-11, brought down the airliner.
Monday, Putin said on Moscow was doing everything possible to allow a team of experts from the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency, to investigate the scene. He also again criticized the Ukraine authorities in Kiev for reigniting fighting with rebels.
“We repeatedly called upon all conflicting sides to stop the bloodshed immediately and sit down at the negotiating table,” Putin said. “I can say with confidence that if military operations were not resumed on June 28 in eastern Ukraine, this tragedy wouldn’t have happened.”
As one of five permanent members of the Security Council, Russia has the power to veto council resolutions. Russian officials have indicated that Moscow would not veto the resolution Monday as long as Russia is not blamed in it.
In a separate development, there were unconfirmed reports Monday of renewed fighting between pro-Kiev forces and separatists near the main train station in Donetsk, widely seen as the last major stronghold held by rebel forces.