Obama calls for Russian ‘pivot’ on Ukraine as MH17 investigation begins

Access to crash sites improved Monday despite regional violence; rebels hand over black boxes to Malaysia

Journalists photograph the two black boxes of the crashed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 after they were handed over to the Malaysian National Security Council.
Robert Ghement / EPA

President Barack Obama on Monday called on Russia to “get serious” about solving the crisis in Ukraine, as Dutch investigators were finally granted access to crash sites of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 by pro-Russian rebels and the bodies of at least 280 victims were shipped to government-controlled Kharkiv to be inspected and repatriated.

The United States and its allies blame the apparent downing of MH17 on the Russian-backed separatists, who control the area where the plane crashed, from which a surface-to-air missile was allegedly fired. Obama reiterated that Moscow has armed, trained and egged on the rebels in eastern Ukraine ever since the country’s pro-Western uprising toppled the Russian-allied president.

“Now’s the time for President [Vladimir] Putin and Russia to pivot away from the strategy they’ve been taking and get serious about trying to resolve hostilities within Ukraine,” Obama said at the White House.

He also reiterated calls from Kiev’s Western allies that the separatists who control the area where MH17 was shot down stop impeding the investigators’ access and tampering with evidence of the crash. “All of which begs the question, What exactly are they trying to hide?” Obama said.

The investigation of the crash site initially dragged, but there were signs Monday that the process was improving. A spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) told reporters that three Dutch investigators had finally been granted secure access to the site.

The United Nations Security Council on Monday also unanimously approved a resolution calling for a full, international investigation into the incident and an end to military activities around the crash site. Russia, under intense international pressure over its alleged support for the rebels, voted in favor of the Australia-proposed measure after language was changed to describe the MH17 crash as a "downing," rather than a "shooting down."

The resolution was non-binding and did not specify which organization would carry out the independent investigation should it go forward.

Meanwhile, a senior separatist leader, Aleksander Borodai, handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts in the city of Donetsk in the early hours of Tuesday.

"Here they are, the black boxes," Borodai told a room packed with journalists at the headquarters of his self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic as an armed rebel placed the boxes on a desk.

Both sides then signed a document, which Borodai said was a protocol to finalize the procedure after lengthy talks with the Malaysians.

"I can see that the black boxes are intact, although a bit damaged. In good condition," Colonel Mohamed Sakri of Malaysian National Security Council said in extending his thanks to "His Excellency Mr.Borodai" for passing on the recorders.

Borodai also said a train carrying the remains of the victims of the Malaysia Airlines plane catastrophe has reached Donetsk. It is on its way to Kharkiv, some186 miles north-west.

The Malaysian experts and a Dutch delegation also on site in Donetsk will travel along with it, he said.

Sakri did not take questions on who might be to blame for the tragedy. 

The investigators from the Netherlands, whose citizens accounted for about half of the crash’s 298 fatalities, arrived at a railway station near the crash site to inspect the bodies of at least 282 victims stored in refrigerated wagons. The head of the team inspected the storage of the bodies in the rail cars and, despite an overwhelming stench of decomposition when the doors were opened, said it was fine.

“The storage of the bodies is of good quality,” said Peter van Vliet, whose team went through the wagons dressed in surgical masks and rubber gloves. Later on Monday, the train left the station in rebel-held Torez for the government-controlled city of Kharkiv to be identified and eventually repatriated.

The Ukrainian government said in a statement that with only 282 bodies and 87 body fragments found, 16 people were still missing.

The Dutch investigators’ arrival coincided with renewed violence in Donetsk, which the separatists said was sparked by an attempt from government forces to enter the city, which separatists seized in April.

Vladyslav Seleznyov, a Ukrainian military spokesman, confirmed that a “counterterror operation” was in progress but would not comment on reports of troops entering Donetsk. "The active phase of the anti-terrorist operation is continuing. We are not about to announce any troop movements," he said .

In other developments, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte spoke with Putin on Monday and agreed that the International Civil Aviation Organization should lead the full investigation. But Rutte and other Western leaders have said Putin needs to do more to de-escalate a conflict that is spiraling out of control and becoming a threat to regional security.

“It is clear that Russia must use her influence on the separatists to improve the situation on the ground,” he told the Dutch parliament. “If in the coming days access to the disaster area remains inadequate, then all political, economic and financial options are on the table against those who are directly or indirectly responsible for that.”

Still a ‘garden cleanup’

Putin, in a televised address Monday, echoed Rutte’s call for separatists to allow international experts access to the crash site but reiterated his line that the downing of the airliner must not be used for political ends.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over the weekend laid out what he called overwhelming evidence of Russian complicity in the shooting and expressed disgust over how the bodies of the victims were treated at the crash site.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has been a harsh critic of Putin since MH17 was shot down, said he had spoken to the Russian leader for the first time about the disaster. At least 27 Australians were on the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Abbott said an Australian investigation team was in Kiev but was unable to travel to the crash sites. He said there was some improvement with the Ukrainian government offering access.

“But there’s still a hell of a long way to go before anyone could be satisfied with the way that site is being treated,” Abbott said. “It’s more like a garden cleanup than a forensic investigation. This is completely unacceptable.”

EU foreign ministers, meanwhile, are due to meet on Tuesday and could announce more sanctions against Moscow. Britain is pushing for tougher measures, and Italy said it expected a "strong and unified response,” but from the beginning the bloc has been divided on how to handle Ukraine and is reluctant to punish an important trading and energy partner in Russia.

Ukraine said it was willing to hand over coordination of the crash investigation to international partners, perhaps led by the Netherlands, but Kiev was convinced the plane was shot down by “professionals.”

“I don’t see any differences between 9/11, the Lockerbie bombing and the attack on Flight 17,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told CNN on Monday. Such “terrorism,” he said, was a danger to the “whole world.”

Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk added in a news conference: "It is clear that this system could not be operated by drunk pro-Russian terrorists. There were professional people."

Kerry said the United States has seen supplies moving into Ukraine from Russia in the last month, including a 150-vehicle convoy of armored personnel carriers, tanks and rocket launchers given to the separatists. It also intercepted conversations about the transfer to separatists of the Russian radar-guided BUK SA-11 missile system, which the U.S. blames for the Boeing 777’s destruction.

Russia’s Defense Ministry, which denied involvement in the MH17 incident, addressed that allegation Monday, denying it  ever delivered any such missile systems — “or any other weapons” — to the separatists in Ukraine.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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