Emergency workers, police officers and even off-duty coal miners — dressed in overalls and covered in soot — yesterday spread out across the sunflower fields and villages of eastern Ukraine, searching the wreckage of a jetliner shot down as it flew kilometers above the country’s battlefield.
The attack on Thursday afternoon killed 298 people from nearly a dozen nations — including vacationers, students and a large contingent of scientists heading to an AIDS conference in Australia.
US intelligence authorities said a surface-to-air missile brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, but could not say who fired it. The Ukrainian government in Kiev, the separatist pro-Russia rebels they are fighting in the east and the Russian government that Ukraine accuses of supporting the rebels all deny shooting the passenger plane down. Moscow also denies backing the rebels.
By midday, 181 bodies had been located, according to emergency workers at the sprawling crash site who were in contact with officials in Kiev. Malaysia Airlines said passengers included 189 Dutch, 29 Malaysians, 27 Australians, 12 Indonesians, nine Britons, four Germans, four Belgians, three Filipinos and one person each from Canada and New Zealand.
Ukraine has called for an international probe to determine who attacked the plane and the US has offered to help. However, access to the site remained difficult and dangerous. The road from Donetsk, the largest city in the region, to the crash site was marked by five rebel checkpoints, with document checks at each.
Nataliya Bystro, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s emergency services, said rebel militiamen were interfering with the recovery operation.
Separatist rebels who control the crash site issued conflicting reports yesterday about whether they had found the plane’s black boxes or not.
“No black boxes have been found... We hope that experts will track them down and create a picture of what has happened,” Donetsk separatist leader Aleksandr Borodai said.
Yet earlier yesterday, an aide to the military leader of Borodai’s group said authorities had recovered eight out of 12 recording devices.
Since planes usually have two black boxes — one for recording flight data and the other for recording cockpit voices — it was not clear what the number 12 referred to.
Borodai said 17 representatives from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and four Ukrainian experts had traveled into rebel-controlled areas to begin an investigation into the attack.
Ukraine’s state aviation service yesterday closed the airspace over two regions currently gripped by separatist fighting — Donetsk and Luhansk — and Russian airlines suspended all flights over Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday called for a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and urged the two sides to hold peace talks as soon as possible. A day earlier, Putin had blamed Ukraine for the downing, saying it was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions — but did not accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down and did not address the key question of whether Russia gave the rebels such a powerful missile.
The Ukrainian Ministry of the Interior released a video purporting to show a truck carrying the Buk missile launcher they say was used to fire on the plane with two of its four missiles apparently missing. The ministry said the footage was filmed by a police surveillance squad at dawn yesterday as the truck was headed to the city of Krasnodon toward the Russian border.
There was no way to independently verify the video.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed Kiev’s accusations that Moscow could be behind the attack.
“Regarding those claims from Kiev that we allegedly did it ourselves: I have not heard a truthful statement from Kiev for months,” he told the Rossiya 24 television channel.
The crash site was spread out over fields between two villages in eastern Ukraine — Rozsypne and Hrabove — and fighting apparently still continued nearby. In the distance, the thud of Grad missile launchers being fired could be heard yesterday morning.
In the sunflower fields around Rozsypne, 40km from the Russian border, lines of men disappeared into the thick, tall growth that was over their heads. One fainted after finding a body. Another body was covered in a coat.
In Hrabove, several kilometers away, huge numbers of simple sticks, some made from tree branches, were affixed with red or white rags to mark spots where body parts were found.
Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs representative Andriy Sybiga said the bodies would be taken to Kharkiv, a government-controlled city 270km to the north, for identification.
Among the debris were watches and smashed mobile phones, charred boarding passes and passports. An “I (heart) Amsterdam” T-shirt and a guidebook to Bali hinted at holiday plans.
Large chunks of the Boeing 777 that bore the airline’s red, white and blue markings lay strewn over one field. The cockpit and one turbine lay a kilometer apart, and the tail landed 10km away. One rebel militiaman in Rozsypne told The Associated Press that the plane’s fuselage showed signs of being struck by a projectile.
The area has seen heavy fighting between government troops and pro-Russia separatists, and rebels had bragged about shooting down two Ukrainian military jets in the region on Wednesday.
Anton Gerashenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said the plane was flying at about 10,000m when it was hit by a missile from a Buk launcher, which can fire up to an altitude of 22,000m.
Malaysia’s prime minister said there was no distress call before the plane went down.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk described the attack as an “international crime” whose perpetrators would have to be punished in an international tribunal.