TOREZ, Ukraine — A train carrying the remains of 280 people killed in the Malaysian plane disaster was finally allowed to leave a rebel-held region in eastern Ukraine as the militants declared a truce on Tuesday around the crash site.
Five days after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was allegedly shot out of the sky, pro-Russian separatists conceded to a furious international clamour for the bodies and the plane's black boxes to be handed over to investigators.
The devices, which record cockpit activity and flight data, were handed to Malaysian officials by the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Borodai, in front of scores of journalists.
"We will order a ceasefire in an area of 10 kilometres around" the site of the disaster, which killed all 298 people on board the plane, he said. Meanwhile, after bitter wrangling, the rebels released the bodies of the dead.
Loaded on a train, they will arrive in the government-controlled city of Kharkiv Tuesday before being put on a plane to the Netherlands, where the flight to Kuala Lumpur originated and which suffered the greatest loss, with 193 citizens killed in the crash.
The rebel concessions came after US President Barack Obama insisted that Moscow force the insurgents it is accused of backing to cooperate with an international probe into the disaster, saying chaos at the impact site was an "insult" to families of the victims.
Moscow, which has drawn ire for failing to rein in the rebels, backed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the downing of the plane and demanding access to the crash site.
At the same time, Russia hit back at US accusations that it supplied the weapons allegedly used to shoot down the airliner – a disaster that has taken Ukraine's three-month bloody conflict to the doorstep of countries as far away as Malaysia and Australia, scores of whose citizens were also killed in the crash.
On the ground, the animosity between Ukraine's warring sides was underlined by intense shelling which erupted in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, a city just 60km from the station where the bodies had been held in refrigerated wagons, killing five and leaving 12 wounded.
Obama put the onus to set the situation straight squarely on Russia, which he said has "direct influence over these separatists."
Russian President Vladimir Putin must prove "that he supports a full and fair investigation," Obama said, stressing "the burden now is on Russia to insist that the separatists stop tampering with evidence, grant investigators who are already on the ground immediate, full, and unimpeded access to the crash site."
Putin had appeared to adopt a conciliatory tone Sunday, saying Moscow would do "everything in its power" to resolve the conflict in the neighbouring former Soviet state.
However, Moscow slapped down US accusations that the missile system used to shoot down the aircraft was transferred from Russia to separatists.
A senior Russian defence ministry official insisted that "Russia did not give the rebels Buk missile systems or any other kinds of weapons or military hardware."
Moscow challenged Kiev instead, saying records showed a Ukrainian military plane was flying just three to five kilometres from the Boeing 777 before it crashed on Thursday.
"With what aim was a military plane flying along a civilian aviation route practically at the same time and at the same flight level as a passenger liner?" asked Lieutenant-General Andrei Kartopolov.
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko swiftly dismissed that claim, calling it an "irresponsible and false statement" by Russia.
Investigators allowed to examine bodies
Russia's riposte came after Kiev released fresh recordings of what it says are intercepted conversations between rebels conspiring to hide the flight's black boxes from international monitors.
And the US embassy confirmed as authentic recordings released earlier by Kiev of an intercepted call between an insurgent commander and a Russian intelligence officer as they realised they had shot down a passenger jet.
The Washington Post said Ukraine's counterintelligence chief had photographs and other evidence that three Buk M-1 anti-aircraft missile systems moved from rebel-held territory into Russia less than 12 hours after the crash.
Earlier, at the Torez railway station, Dutch investigators wearing masks and headlights were finally allowed to examine the remains of over 200 recovered bodies.
As they opened each of the train wagons holding the remains, an overpowering stench filled the air.
Patience was wearing thin over the limited access to the crash site in Grabove, but Malaysia's premier said late Monday rebels have now agreed to give investigators full freedom to examine the scene. — AFP