A refrigerated train loaded with bodies of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 departs Kharkiv railway station, Ukraine, Tuesday. Photo: AP
The remains of the victims of the Malaysia Airlines crash arrived in territory held by the Ukrainian government on Tuesday on their way to the Netherlands, after delays and haphazard treatment of the bodies that put pressure on European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels to impose tougher economic sanctions on Russia.
The crash site itself, in farmland held by the pro-Russian separatists whom the West accuses of shooting down the plane, remained unsecured five days after the disaster — another source of frustration for officials around the world eager to establish the facts of the case.
After a 17-hour journey from the town of Torez in rebel territory, the train carrying the bodies pulled into a station in Kharkiv, a government-controlled city where Ukrainian authorities have set up their crash investigation center. The train gave a low-pitched blast from its horn as the grey corrugated refrigerator cars slowly rolled through weed-choked tracks onto the grounds of a factory where the bodies were being received.
Government spokesman Oleksander Kharchenko said Ukraine "will do our best" to send the bodies to the Netherlands on Tuesday. Of the 298 people who died aboard the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight, 193 were Dutch citizens.
But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte says his government aims to have the first bodies returned on Wednesday. "It is our aim — and at the moment our expectation — that sometime tomorrow the first plane carrying victims will leave for Eindhoven," he said.
Rutte said that the identification of some bodies will be quick. But he has warned grieving families of victims of Thursday's crash that the identification of some others could take "weeks or even months."
In Brussels, European Union foreign ministers were discussing what action to take response to the disaster. Europe and the United States have imposed targeted economic sanctions against Russia for supporting Ukraine's five-month insurgency that began after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by protesters in February.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the priority for the ministers' meeting was to deal with the concerns of the Netherlands, which lost more nationals in the disaster than any other. That means repatriation of the victims' bodies and a full investigation of the crash and its cause, she said.
However, she said, the ministers were not empowered to move to so-called Level 3 sanctions that would target sectors of Russia's economy. Ashton said she still expected a robust discussion of what action the EU should take.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would do "everything in its power" to facilitate the investigation including putting pressure on the rebels, but said that "was not enough" to resolve the situation. During a meeting with Russia's Security Council, he again lashed out at Kiev for its military offensive to dislodge the rebels.
The rebels control a swathe of territory in two eastern provinces, and have battled Ukrainian troops with heavy weapons including tanks and missile launchers that the West says came from Russia. Russia denies supporting the insurgency.
The sanctions so far have focused on individuals instead of entire sectors of the economy, though the EU was moving already to broaden them before the downing of the plane. British Prime Minister David Cameron said Monday that the jet's destruction has drastically changed the situation, and that the Russians cannot expect continued access to European markets and capital if they continued to fuel a war against another European country.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius blamed "terrorists supplied by Moscow" for shooting down the airliner, killing all aboard. He said he hoped the EU will impose beefed-up sanctions on Russia. His call for an arms embargo was a direct challenge to France, which is building two warships for the Russian navy.
French President Francois Hollande has told reporters that the warship deal wouldn't fall under new sanctions because it was finalized in 2011. French officials have also argued that the ship would be delivered without any weapons. "The Russians have paid. We would have to reimburse 1.1 billion euros" ($1.5 billion) if France canceled the deal, he said Monday night.
At the crash site near the village of Hrabove, a few rebel fighters accompanied observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The farmland where the wreckage is scattered was otherwise unguarded and unsecured. Even the red-and-white tape that had sealed off the fields had been torn away.
In some places, the smell of decay and flies suggested the presence of remains under the wreckage, and observers said Monday that not all bodies had been recovered.
About 70 villagers, most of them older women, gathered across the road from the site to sing Ukrainian Orthodox hymns at a memorial service led by several priests. Talk of the current fighting brought up memories of World War II when, villagers said, the front line between the forces of Germany and the Soviet Union was a nearby river. "There is only one God, we should pray to him to solve this conflict," said Maria Butenko, 73, her head wrapped in a yellow kerchief on a warm day with a few clouds scattering drops of rain.
Anna, who didn't give a last name or an age other than to say she was 9 years old in 1941 when the Germans invaded, said, "We are all praying, the church is full."