KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine accused Russia on Saturday of helping separatist rebels destroy evidence at the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines plane shot down in rebel-held territory with 298 people on board.
The government in Kiev said militiamen have removed 38 bodies from the crash site in eastern Ukraine and have taken them to the rebel-held city of Donetsk. It says the bodies were transported with the assistance of specialists with distinct Russian accents.
The rebels are also “seeking large transports to carry away plane fragments to Russia,” the Ukrainian government said in a statement.
The plane flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with citizens from 13 nations was shot down Thursday afternoon in eastern Ukraine close to the Russian border in an area that has seen months of clashes between government troops and pro-Russia separatists.
Ukraine called on Moscow to insist that the pro-Russia rebels grant international experts the ability to conduct a thorough, impartial investigation into the downing of the plane — a demand that President Barack Obama also issued a day earlier from Washington.
“The integrity of the site has been compromised, and there are indications that vital evidence has not been preserved in place,” Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said at a news conference Saturday in Kuala Lumpur.
He called for immediate access for Malaysia’s team at the site to retrieve human remains.
An international delegation visited the crash site Friday evening but was only allowed to view one small portion. While the delegation was leaving under orders from armed rebel overseers, two Ukrainian members lingered to look at a fragment of the plane, prompting a militiaman to fire a warning shot in the air with his Kalashnikov.
Daniel Baer, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, complained that what he called “Russian proxies” in Ukraine had failed to give investigators safe access to the site and tampered with the evidence there.
Ukraine said it has passed along all information on developments relating to Thursday’s downing to its European and U.S. partners
Obama, disclosing that one American was among those killed, called the downing of the plane “a global tragedy.”
“An Asian airliner was destroyed in European skies filled with citizens from many countries, so there has to be a credible international investigation into what happened,” he said.
At an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. pointed blame at the separatists, saying Washington believes the jetliner carrying 298 people, including 80 children, likely was downed by an SA-11 missile and “we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel.”
Both the White House and the Kremlin have called for peace talks in the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-speaking separatists who seek closer ties to Moscow. Heavy fighting took place Friday less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the crash site, with 20 civilians reported killed.
Malaysia Airlines, meanwhile, said Saturday it has no immediate plans to fly the relatives of the 298 passengers and crew killed in the downing to visit the site in Ukraine because of security concerns.
A spokesman for the airline says next of kin are being cared for in Amsterdam while a team from the carrier, including security officials, was in Ukraine assessing the situation Saturday.
In the Netherlands, travelers flying out of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport laid flowers and signed a condolence book before boarding their flights Saturday, including those on the latest Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to Kuala Lumpur.
Michael Corder contributed from Amsterdam