The sprawling site in eastern Ukraine where a Malaysia Airlines jet went down in a missile attack threatened to become a humanitarian and forensic nightmare Saturday as pro-Russia separatists continued to limit the access of international teams seeking to recover bodies and investigate the crash.
As many as 38 bodies have disappeared from the area where the Boeing 777 crashed Thursday, killing 298 people, Ukrainian officials said.
The location of the plane's flight recorders remains a mystery. International investigators have been able to make only brief and limited visits to the location, which is held by armed separatists. U.S. officials say the missile was launched from territory they control.
Ukraine also said Saturday that weapons systems of the type suspected in the attack had been spirited across the border to Russia.
"The integrity of the site has been compromised," Malaysian Transportation Minister Liow Tiong Lai said as he prepared to join a team of more than 60 investigators and relief workers from Malaysia in Ukraine. "There are indications that vital evidence has not been preserved in place."
Officials of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, said that time was crucial in terms of preserving the bodies of the victims as well as gathering usable evidence to determine who destroyed Flight 17 as it traveled from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
In a news conference, however, one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic said that it was Ukraine that was thwarting the investigation and that the site remains intact.
"There's a grandmother. A body landed right in her bed. She says, 'Please take this body away.' But we cannot tamper with the site," said the leader, Alexander Borodai. "The Ukrainian authorities are not interested in an objective investigation."
OSCE observers were given access to the site Saturday for a little longer than the hour allowed them on Friday and watched as local men packed some remains into body bags, but they said their time was far from sufficient.
They said they were also limited to circumscribed areas under the watchful eye of the separatists. Volodymyr Groysman, Ukraine's vice prime minister who is overseeing the task force on the crash, told reporters in Kiev that the site amounted to "200 rescue workers working under the pressure of 900 gunmen."
The more time that elapses, the less credible the evidence gathered at the crash site will be, the OSCE said. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose nation lost 193 citizens on the flight, called TV images of victims' property being handled by unauthorized people at the site "downright disgusting."
International leaders on Saturday turned up the heat on Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom they say has the necessary clout with the separatists. The diplomatic escalation is turning into one of the most intense showdowns between Russia and Western Europe since the end of the Cold War.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Rutte implored the Russian leader to pressure the separatists to allow unfettered access to the site, and British Prime Minister David Cameron summoned Russian Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko for talks with Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.
Rutte said he had a "very intense" phone conversation with Putin asking him to urge the Ukrainian insurgents to change their stance and "show the world that [Putin] does what is expected of him."
After talking by phone, Cameron and Rutte agreed that the European Union "will need to reconsider its approach to Russia in light of evidence that pro-Russian separatists brought down the plane," according to a statement from the British government.
Russian officials continued to deny that they had anything to do with the attack and insisted that they were not holding up the investigation.
"We want international experts to arrive at the crash site as soon as possible," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian TV. He said the country would not "violate the existing international norms applicable for such cases, contrary to allegations voiced in Kiev."
Putin agreed with Merkel on the need for a "thorough and objective investigation," the Kremlin said. But even as pressure mounted on Putin, how much action he would take to influence the separatists remained unclear.
Reaching the site and finding the flight data and voice recorders, as well as other pieces of the aircraft, remain key for the investigators. That's especially true given the weapon that was probably used to bring it down, which U.S. officials have said was fired from territory held by the pro-Russia fighters seeking independence from Ukraine.
The Russian-built SA-11, or Buk missile, suspected in the attack carries an explosive warhead armed with a "proximity" fuse that detonates within 110 yards of a target instead of striking it directly, according to retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Stephen V. Reeves. That means debris from the wreckage, particularly chunks of the jetliner, probably would contain tell-tale fragments of the SA-11.
Ukraine said it was assembling an investigation team that includes representatives of the International Civil Aviation Organization and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, as well as the Netherlands, Malaysia and other countries, in the hope that it will gain full access to the site soon.
Meanwhile, tension continued to rise between Ukraine and Russia over the downed plane. Ukrainian officials Saturday made new accusations of Russian involvement in the attack, citing intelligence that three Buk systems were taken across the border into Russia in the predawn hours Friday, after a week in which two Ukrainian military transport planes were also shot down. Russian military personnel accompanied the Buk systems, the officials said.
At a news conference in Kiev, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called the missile attack "an act of aggression in the sense of international law and U.N. statute," though he stopped short of saying he considered Ukraine at war with Russia.
The latest volley of strong words continued a tense showdown between Ukraine and Russia that began early this year when Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. It shows little sign of abating as insurgents inspired in part by that takeover have seized control of large swaths of eastern Ukraine. On Saturday, fighting continued in the region, and separatist leaders said 16 civilians were killed. The Ukrainian government did not offer a tally of casualties.
Despite Moscow's denials, the idea that skilled military personnel assisted in the strike on the Malaysia Airlines jet was given currency by American military experts, who said that whoever fired the weapon — at a plane traveling about 600 mph at an altitude of 33,000 feet — would have required extensive training.
A crew of at least four would have been needed to accurately fire a truck-mounted SA-11. "You've got to have people who are technically competent," said Reeves, who formerly served as an intelligence officer in Western Europe.
The SA-11, a 1970s-era weapon, is not as technologically advanced or easy to operate as modern weaponry.
"This is a hard system to use, in today's terms," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O'Reilly, a former director of the Missile Defense Agency, who estimated that each of the SA-11 crew members would have needed at least six months of training. "You don't just take some folks off the street and 30 days later they're trained."
Times staff writers David Willman in Washington, Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow and Henry Chu in London contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times