Three Buk missile systems have made their way from eastern Ukraine across the border into Russia, Ukrainian officials said Saturday, including one lacking the missile they believe brought down a Malaysia Airlines jet the day before.
Officials also described difficult conditions at the aircraft's crash site, which they say is being kept under strict control by pro-Russian separatists who may have removed bodies and the plane's "black boxes."
“Three missile launchers trespassed the Ukraine border on July 18,” Vitaly Nayda, Ukraine’s counterintelligence chief, told reporters in Kiev.
The statement came a day after a government advisor posted a video purportedly showing a Buk system, with at least one missile missing, traveling toward Russia on a road in eastern Ukraine.
With the new disclosure, Ukrainian officials suggested that the Russian government supplied multiple anti-aircraft systems to the separatists, which Nayda said were also used to bring down two Ukrainian military transport planes earlier in the week. The systems crossed the border at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. Friday, Nayda said.
If the Ukrainian government claims are confirmed, it could serve as evidence that Russia provided help to separatists to shoot down planes in eastern Ukraine.
Nayda added that, according to his country’s intelligence, Russian military officers accompanied the units on their move across the border.
“We documented negotiations between terrorists and got information from those conversations that three Russian personnel came with it,” he said. “There were Russian citizens operating the Buk-M1 and they came from territory of the Russian Federation.”
Later in the day, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlov Klimkin told reporters that conditions at the crash site continue to be difficult. He said the government believes 38 bodies had been removed by the separatists to an unknown location in nearby Donetsk and that the remaining bodies could not be accessed because they lie in areas that are under rebel control.
"It's gone beyond any sort of moral consideration. Now the critical priority is to recover all bodies in a decent and human way," he said.
Ukrainian armed forces and the pro-Russia separatists have been waging a war in eastern Ukraine, with the government in Kiev accusing Moscow of providing aid to the militants over its porous western border. Ukrainian officials have said that this aid, particularly the supplying of the Buk surface-to-air missile system, makes Russia at least in part culpable in the downing Thursday of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that killed all 298 on board.
The U.S. has also suggested Russian involvement in the Malaysia Airlines crash. “We cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samatha Powers told an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Friday.
Russia has denied any involvement and said it believed the Ukrainian military shot down the plane.
Meanwhile, the site of the accident on Saturday remained a flashpoint for international investigators. In addition to the bodies, Ukrainian officials said on a government website that it believes the separatists aim to move pieces of the plane to Russia and are seeking large modes of transport to do so.
"The terrorists, with the help of Russia, are trying to destroy evidence of international crimes," said the government, which commonly refers to the separatists as terrorists.
At a news conference Saturday night, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who is overseeing efforts at the site for the government, said that a key piece of evidence may already be gone.
"We don't have any information that the black boxes are on the site. It's quite possible they were taken away," he said.
In an interview on Russian television, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that his government has no designs on taking the flight recorders away from the crash site.
Based on the offer of pro-Russia separatists in the Donetsk region of a cease-fire for the duration of the international investigation, “we are for international experts to arrive at the crash site as soon as possible, to immediately get the flight recorders which we are not going to take into our possession and violate the existing international norms applicable for such cases, contrary to allegations voiced in Kiev," he said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the group that is helping monitor access to the site, said it was not capable of securing the area because the separatists are heavily armed and closely control the territory around it.
Klimkin said his country would continue to work with the international group, which also includes Russia as a member, to gain access to the site and even strike a cease-fire with the separatists. But the foreign minister added: "It's extremely difficult."
Representatives from the OSCE said guns were fired in the air when investigators attempted to inspect the wreckage during a brief sanctioned visit on Friday. Klimkin said that, though Ukraine is assembling an investigation team that includes representatives from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board as well as European inspectors, observers were given access to the site for only about an hour Saturday.
In a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked him to step in and ask the separatists to secure the site for international investigators, particularly the International Civil Aviation Organization, according to a statement from the German government. "The chancellor once again asked President Putin to exercise his influence over the separatists in order to reach this objective," the statement said.
Putin said he agreed with Merkel’s desire for a “thorough and objective investigation,” according to the Kremlin. But how much action Putin would take remains unclear.
In Malaysia, Transportation Minister Liow Tiong Lai echoed the Ukrainian government’s warning and said that the separatists have not preserved the crash area.
“The integrity of the site has been compromised,” he said at a news conference earlier in the day. Liow was bound for Kiev to help oversee recovery and investigation efforts.
On Saturday, separatist leader Alexander Borodai, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, gave a news conference in which he denied that his forces had interfered with the site. He blamed Ukrainian authorities for not allowing experts access to the site. “We ask the Russian Federation to help us with this problem and send their experts," he said.
Time is running short for international investigators, OSCE said, warning that with every passing day without access, material can be removed or tampered with.
Teams from around the world are headed to Ukraine in the hope of moving the investigation and recovery effort forward. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans landed in Kiev on Friday with more than a dozen experts, while a team of 62 Malaysians, including two crash investigators, arrived earlier Saturday.
Times staff writer Sergei Loiko in Moscow contributed to this report.