Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday again attempted to sidestep any blame in connection with last week's downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet and demanded that international teams be ensured safe access to the crash site.
"Everything should be done to ensure [international experts] full and absolute safety, and to create humanitarian zones essential for their work," Putin said in an urgent televised address that also appeared on the Kremlin's official website. "For its part, Russia will do all it can to transition the conflict in eastern Ukraine from today's military stage toward the negotiation phase."
Putin didn't clarify how Russia would try to achieve that, and he again blamed Ukraine's government for the tragedy.
"I can say with confidence that if on June 28 combat activities in eastern Ukraine had not been resumed, this tragedy most likely would not have happened," he said. "At the same time, no one has a right to use this tragedy to achieve their narrowly selfish political ends."
In recent days Putin has drawn international fire over allegations that the Kremlin incited and armed pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine with weapons including sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, one of which was apparently used to down the Malaysian Airlines passenger jet over the Donbass region, killing all 298 aboard.
Putin insisted that officials responsible for the Ukraine situation "should acknowledge their responsibility both before their own people and before the peoples of those countries whose representatives were among the victims of this catastrophe."
The early-morning timing of the address and its somewhat blurred wording indicated that Putin was more than a little concerned about the situation, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a Russian senior political expert.
"Feeling that every new day brings more understanding to the question of who stands behind the downing of the plane, Putin in a statement close to hysteria in its undertones hurried to state that Russia will never admit anything and will never agree to any findings pointing a finger at the Kremlin," said Oreshkin, a political scientist with the Academy of Sciences Geography Institute.
"Putin's message to the world is clear: 'Whatever you learn and whatever you say, you have no right to blame me for what happened, especially if you use it in your dirty political games."
The tragedy has narrowed Putin's room for maneuvering, Oreshkin said.
"Putin is no longer in a position to continue open support for pro-Russia separatists in the region, let alone deploy troops in Ukraine," he said. "On the other hand, Putin loses face both with the rebels in Ukraine and his radical supporters in Russia who counted on seeing a new Stalin in him and sincerely believed that he would send Russian troops into Ukraine at some point."
Some separatist leaders are already openly calling Putin "a traitor to their cause, which may explain some of the urgency that must have compelled the Kremlin leader to deliver a sudden statement in the middle of the night," Oreshkin said.
Dmitry Orlov, a pro-Kremlin political scientist, said Putin was sending a clear message to Western leaders that Kiev authorities won't get the flight recorders from the airliner and that the investigation should be carried out solely by an unbiased international aviation commission.
"Putin has enough fortitude not to succumb to any form of pressure before the end of the investigation," said Orlov, general director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communication, a Moscow-based think tank. "The urgency of the statement indicates Putin's extreme concern with the situation and his desire to see the investigation proceeding in an unhindered and most transparent way."
But Oreshkin said Putin must count on the separatists in Ukraine to remove and hide any evidence linking the Kremlin to the jet downing.
Pro-Russia militants have found the flight recorders and were ready to hand them over to an international commission, an official of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic said Monday.
"Visually they are in excellent condition with no damage detected," Sergei Kavtaradze, a member of the formation's Security Council, said in an interview with the Interfax news agency. "I have spoken to representatives of the Malaysian side, [who] I hope will get down here quickly. We will hand over 'the black boxes' only to international experts."
Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk said Monday that his country was ready to give the Netherlands, which lost the most citizens in the crash, the role of investigation coordinator.
"As the side that suffered most, the Netherlands may lead the investigation in close coordination and cooperation with all other parties," Yatseniuk said at a briefing in Kiev.
In the meantime, 277 bodies of crash victims have been found on the site, and 251 of them have been loaded into train cars, Yatseniuk said. He complained that the pro-Russia separatists were preventing the bodies from being examined by authorities and prepared for their return to family members.
Staff writer Steve Zeitchik contributed to the story from Kiev, Ukraine.