Bloomberg News

MH17 Bodies to Leave Ukraine as Doubts Arise on Recovery

July 23, 2014

Black Box

A pro-Russia separatist shows members of the media a black box belonging to Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, before handing it over to Malaysian representatives during a news conference in Donetsk. Source: AFP/Getty Images

A first plane carrying bodies from flight MH17 left eastern Ukraine for the Netherlands for identification, as questions arose over whether all victims’ remains had been recovered from rebel-held territory.

While the Netherlands, which lost 193 people in the July 17 downing of the Malaysian Air (MAS) flight, declared a day of mourning, the prime minister of Australia said officials were unsure how many bodies had been recovered and sent to Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv. Officials there recommended a more thorough search of the site near Grabovo, less than 60 miles (97 kilometers) from Russia’s border.

“My fear is that unless we do more, unless we prepare for further possible measures, some will never come home,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose country lost 27 people, told journalists in Canberra today. “That would be completely unacceptable for bereaved families in Australia and right around the world.”

International anger has grown in the aftermath of the downed flight, for which Ukraine and its allies in the U.S. and Europe blame pro-Russian insurgents waging a separatist war against government troops. European Union states threatened yesterday to widen sanctions against Russia, which is fending off accusations that it’s involved in the conflict and is trying to place responsibility on Ukraine.

Wooden Coffins

Forensics work is accelerating as international pressure builds on Russian President Vladimir Putin to expedite a probe into who shot down the jet traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and killed its 298 passengers and crew.

U.S. intelligence officials said yesterday satellite images and other evidence indicate the rebels attacked the airliner with a surface-to-air missile from their territory.

While Putin has said his opponents are using the crash for “selfish political gains,” the EU warned yesterday it would restrict the country’s access to capital markets and sensitive energy and defense technologies to squeeze its finances.

Russia has already felt the effects. It canceled its first ruble bond auction in three months yesterday after borrowing costs surged to the highest level in more than two months. Nomura Holdings Inc. (8604) closed recommended positions in ruble and dollar bonds as the likelihood of more severe sanctions “meaningfully increased,” according to an note yesterday.

Still, the Micex Index (INVCMCX) of stocks rose 0.4 percent today at 2:17 p.m. in Moscow. The gauge is down 6 percent this year.

Number 200

In Kharkiv, Ukrainian soldiers held a brief farewell ceremony while bodies in light-brown wooden coffins were loaded into the plane. They will be met at Eindhoven airport in the Netherlands by King Willem Alexander, Queen Maxima and Prime Minister Mark Rutte with the victims’ relatives, the Dutch government said in a statement.

There were 20 coffins on the first flight, and the transport of the remains should be completed by July 25, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman said from Kharkiv. While Ukrainian authorities said 282 bodies and other remains had been sent to the city, Dutch experts said today they’d inspected 200 bodies from two of four train wagons.

“The only thing I’m sure of is that I’m sure of the number 200,” Dutch mission head Jan Tuinder said in a statement distributed by the Ukrainian government late yesterday. “The victims will be identified in Holland so the remains are being place in coffins ready for transport.”

‘Evil’ Crime

In southeast Ukraine, the smell of death hovered over the crash site littered with burnt fuselage parts, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) south from Kharkiv. The perimeter was still guarded by rebels as international inspectors collected evidence for the investigation.

Restricted access to the site and eye witness reports that militants moved bodies and wreckage have fueled outrage, particularly in countries that suffered the most losses.

“We will do our bests to ensure access to the site of the tragedy to conduct a further probe,” Hroisman said. “But we know for sure that it depends on Russia’s decision.”

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia, which lost 43 passengers and crew, called the downing of MH17 “a cruel act, and an evil, violent crime,” in parliament today.

“Some questions require immediate answers. Was the plane shot down by a missile, and on whose instructions?” he said. “Who supplied the weapons, what was their real motive, and if it was a premeditated act or an error?”

Three Malaysian experts accompanied a contingent from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to the site, according to OSCE spokeswoman Iryna Gudyma.

Missile Strike

Separatists also turned over to Malaysian officials the in-flight recorders, which may give clues about the flight’s last moments. The boxes will be passed to the U.K.’s Air Accident Investigations Board in Farnborough, Malaysia’s Transport Ministry said in a statement.

Photographs of debris from the downed Malaysian jet show what seem to be telltale holes left by a missile strike on the Boeing Co. (BA:US) 777, defense experts said. One image of a heavily perforated piece of fuselage that appears to come from the plane’s cockpit suggests damage from a ground-fired warhead.

Fragmentation Warhead

“The punctures seen in the photograph are relatively uniform in size,” said Reed Foster, manager, military capabilities at IHS Jane’s. “This would potentially be consistent with a fragmentation-type warhead employed upon a number of modern and legacy surface-to-air missile systems.”

The U.S. has ruled out involvement by Ukraine’s military - a scenario suggested by Russia - because its missiles weren’t within range of the plane, according to three American intelligence officials who briefed reporters yesterday on the condition of anonymity. While stopping short of claiming direct involvement by Russia, none of the three officials ruled it out.

In eastern Ukraine, three civilians died and 10 were wounded in fighting in Luhansk, according to a statement on the city council’s website. In the neighboring regional capital Donetsk, insurgents relocated from the outskirts to the center of the city of about 1 million people, the Ukrainian army said on its Facebook page.

Dodging Bullet

EU governments will move toward stiffer sanctions, possibly including level three measures aimed at entire industries, if Putin refuses to abide by a United Nations resolution calling for an international probe into the disaster and unimpeded access to the crash site.

Still, a poll taken before the downing of MH17 showed 84 percent of Russians say Putin should defend the interests of Russian speakers in Ukraine, according to the state-run All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion. The July 12-13 survey among 1,600 had a margin of error of 3.4 percent.

“Putin will probably dodge the EU’s bullet for some weeks,” Cliff Kupchan, an analyst at Eurasia group, wrote in a note. “Opponents of harsh measures in the EU will find their argument increasingly unsustainable. Putin will before long very probably face coordinated US and EU level 3 measures -- most likely in September.”

(A previous version of this story was corrected to fix the spelling of Abbott’s name in the fourth paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Jason Scott in Canberra at jscott14@bloomberg.net; Daryna Krasnolutska in Kiev at dkrasnolutsk@bloomberg.net; Denis Kazansky in Kharkiv at dkazansky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: John Fraher at jfraher@bloomberg.net Michael Winfrey, Andrew Langley


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