As many as 169 bodies from the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 have been placed in body bags and stored in refrigerated railway cars in eastern Ukraine, a spokesman for an international monitoring group said Sunday.
Speaking to reporters by phone from Torez railway station in a separatist-controlled part of the country, Michael Bociurkiw of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that the bodies arrived late Saturday night or early Sunday morning after men thought to be from separatist emergency operations groups removed them from the wreckage the previous day.
"Most of the body bags seemed intact," Bociurkiw said, "And most crucially there was refrigeration [on the railway cars] because today was another very warm day." The cars were from the Soviet era but appeared to be in good working order. Torez sits about 40 miles east of the regional capital of Donetsk, close to the Russian border.
Bociurkiw said he and his team counted three railway cars with bodies on them. It was impossible to confirm the total number of bodies, but separatist leaders told monitors that they total 169, he said, or slightly more than half the number who died in the disaster.
It was unclear early Sunday afternoon where the bodies would be taken, though separatist leaders told the monitors the train wouldn't go anywhere until undisclosed international experts arrived.
Bociurkiw said that the "thinking is the cars will [eventually] be taken to Ukrainian-controlled territory and they can be processed there," but he said these were essentially murmurings at the site, and that the separatists have made no announcement about their status. Shortly after the international monitors left, at least one reporter in Torez posted photos to social media that showing the trains with no guards or separatists in the vicinity.
An additional 38 bodies have been recovered from the wreckage and taken by separatists to a local hospital, according to Ukrainian officials. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, said Sunday morning that the government believed they had been transported there for "forensic examination."
If the tallies are accurate, that would leave 91 bodies unaccounted for from the downing of the Malaysian jetliner, which was struck by a missile Thursday in the airspace over the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.
The challenge for families of the dead will be trying to learn the status of their loved ones' remains and in which group might be holding them.
The status of victims' bodies has become a charged issue, with international governments and watchdog groups expressing worry that the remains are not being handled properly.
Though there has also been serious concern that the separatists, who have tightly controlled access to the crash site, would be impervious to outside advice, Bociurkiw said that when it came to the bodies on the railway cars, "I did get the impression there was a preparedness to listen to the experts and follow their guidance." Who those experts were, however, remained murky, he said, since few outside observers have been allowed near the area.
Lying behind separatist lines, the crash site remains a flash point for world governments, particularly those with citizens killed in the disaster. On Saturday, world leaders such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte -- whose country accounted for the largest number of people aboard the plane -- British Prime Minister David Cameron and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott castigated Russian leader Vladimir Putin for not leaning more heavily on the pro-Russia separatists to allow investigators and emergency workers better access.