A train carrying the remains of many of the 298 victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 arrived at a Ukrainian government base yesterday on the first leg of their final journey home to be reclaimed by their families.
Five refrigerated rail cars containing 200 body bags arrived in the city of Kharkiv after pro-Russia separatists agreed to hand over the plane’s black boxes to Malaysian authorities and the bodies to the Netherlands, where many victims had lived.
The train slowly rolled into the grounds of an arms industry plant, where the remains are due to be unloaded and flown to the Netherlands.
A spokeswoman for a Dutch team of forensic experts in Kharkiv said the transfer was not expected before today.
The Malaysia Airlines plane was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was shot down on Thursday last week near Donetsk, a stronghold of pro-Russian rebels, where fighting with Ukrainian troops flared again yesterday.
Western governments, including those of EU ministers meeting in Brussels yesterday, have threatened Russia with broader sanctions for what they say is its backing of the militants although they are struggling to agree a response.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would urge the separatists to allow a full investigation.
The Netherlands said it would lead the investigation, while Malaysia said it would look after the plane’s black boxes until a team was set up.
“Here they are, the black boxes,” separatist leader Aleksander Borodai told journalists at the headquarters of his self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic as an armed rebel placed the boxes on a desk.
A small group of Malaysian air crash experts became the first international accident investigators to reach the site yesterday, escorted by a convoy of international monitors and heavily armed separatist fighters.
As they went about their work, loud explosions were heard on the outskirts of Donetsk, about 60km from the site.
Putin said a Ukrainian military “tank attack” on Donetsk was “unacceptable” and urged the West to put pressure on Kiev to end hostilities.
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Security Council, said 13 Ukrainian troops were killed in fighting in the east in the previous 24 hours when “terrorists” attacked the army and their roadblocks 20 times.
The rival sides were now fighting around the city of Lysychansk, about 130km northeast of Donetsk, he said.
Kiev also said it recaptured the adjacent town of Severodonetsk, while the rebels confirmed that they were forced out.
EU foreign ministers were meeting yesterday to discuss further penalties against Russia, but the most they are expected to do is to speed up implementation of sanctions against individuals, and possibly companies, agreed to in principle last week before the plane was brought down.