U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday they have no evidence of direct Russian government involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The statements, made anonymously to The Associated Press and Reuters, came after a train carrying the remains of many of the 298 victims of the Malaysian Airlines passenger jet – brought down over Ukraine’s restive east – arrived in government-controlled territory on Tuesday, and as experts began to examine the plane’s black boxes, which separatist rebels handed over to Malaysian officials.
U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that they believe pro-Russian separatists likely shot down the plane "by mistake," and that they have no evidence the Russian government was directly involved.
Intelligence officials did tell the AP, however, that Russia "created the conditions" for the downing by arming the separatists.
The train, carrying about 200 body bags, reached a terminal in the eastern city of Kharkiv, which is in Ukrainian government hands. From there, the victims will be taken to the Netherlands — where two-thirds of the victims came from — to be identified.
The transportation of the bodies from the crash sites came after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak negotiated with the separatists for the victims and the plane’s data recorders to be given to authorities.
International investigators have reported improved access to the wreckage of the airliner four days after it was shot down, although there are indications that some of the plane’s broken-up shell may have been tampered with.
Earlier on Tuesday, senior separatist leader Aleksander Borodai handed over the black boxes in the city of Donetsk, where his self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic is centered.
Col. Mohamed Sakri of the Malaysian National Security Council said the two black boxes were "in good condition."
Progress in the recovery operation came amid fresh calls for broader sanctions against Russia for its support for the rebellion. Western governments have blamed Moscow for providing the missile launcher thought to have brought down the passenger jet.
European Union foreign ministers discussed possible action Tuesday, with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Lina Linkevicius blaming “terrorists supplied by Moscow” for the deaths of all 298 people aboard. He called for not only beefed-up sanctions but also an arms embargo — a direct challenge to France, which is building two warships for the Russian navy and has been tepid its in response to the Ukraine crisis.
But Bloomberg reported on Tuesday that French President Francois Hollande was holding out the possibility of cancelling the sale of the second ship, which has not yet been paid for, if the EU decides to widen sanctions against Russia.
"Can the rest of the contract be honored? That will depend on Russia's attitude," Hollande commented at the annual presidential press dinner in Paris.
The European meeting follows a United Nations Security Council resolution demanding that those responsible "be held to account and that all states cooperate fully with efforts to establish accountability." It also demands that armed groups allow "safe, secure, full and unrestricted access" to the sites where crash debris was found.
The Kremlin said Monday that President Vladimir Putin spoke to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte by telephone, with both giving a "high assessment of the resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council on the investigation into the catastrophe."
But Rutte said attitudes toward Russia have changed “fundamentally” since the crash. "It is clear that Russia must use her influence on the separatists to improve the situation on the ground," he said.
Later, at the start of a meeting with Moscow defense and security chiefs, Putin reiterated that Russia would “do everything in our power” to rein in the separatists, but that “that is not nearly enough.” The West would need to pressure the Ukrainian government to end its “counterterrorism” operation, he said.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who has pushed for a harder line against Moscow than some of his European allies, said Monday it was time for Putin and Russia "to pivot away from the strategy that they've been taking and get serious about trying to resolve hostilities within Ukraine."
He said that Putin and Russia had a direct responsibility to compel separatists to cooperate with the investigation, and that the burden was on Moscow to insist that separatists stop tampering with the probe, he said. "What are they trying to hide?" Obama said at the White House.
Russia's Defense Ministry has challenged Western accusations that pro-Russian separatists were responsible for shooting down the airliner, and has said that Ukrainian warplanes had flown close to it.
The ministry also rejected accusations that Russia had supplied the rebels with SA-11 BUK anti-aircraft missile systems — which Kiev and the West said downed the airliner — "or any other weapons."
Putin on Monday urged separatists to allow international experts to have access to the crash sites.
His ambassador to Malaysia, Lyudmila Vorobyeva, said that the rebels did not trust the Ukrainian government and that was why they did not want to hand over the black boxes to them. "This situation is quite unique. The area is a war zone. I think the international community should be flexible about that and act in a way acceptable to all sides," she said at a news conference.
The spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the group had unfettered access on Monday. Also, three members of a Dutch disaster victim identification team arrived at a railway station near the crash sites and, dressed in surgical masks and rubber gloves, inspected the storage of the bodies in refrigerated railcars.
The team’s leader, Peter van Vliet, said he was impressed by the work the recovery crews did, given the heat and the scale of the scene. "I think they did a hell of a job in a hell of a place," he said.
As they went about their work, fighting flared in Donetsk, some 50 miles from the sites — a reminder of the dangers the experts face operating in a war zone.
Four people were killed in clashes, health officials said. The rebels’ military commander, Igor Strelkov, said on his Facebook page that up to 12 of his men died in Monday's fighting.
Al Jazeera and wire services
SLIDESHOW: THE LONG FINAL JOURNEY OF THE VICTIMS OF FLIGHT MH17