A pro-Russian separatist stands at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region July 19, 2014. Britain said on Saturday that Russia must use its influence over Ukrainian separatists to improve access to the site of the downed Malaysian aircraft, adding it was calling in the country's ambassador over the disaster. Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters
International monitors moved gingerly Saturday through fields reeking of the decomposing corpses of the victims of a Malaysian airliner shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine, trying to secure the sprawling site in hopes that a credible investigation of the disaster can be conducted.
The crash that killed all 298 people aboard the plane two days earlier intensified the already-high animosity on all sides of the conflict.
The Ukrainian government and separatist rebels accuse each other of shooting down the Boeing 777 with a surface-to-air missile. Many see the hand of Russia, either for its alleged support of the insurgents or perhaps firing the missile itself. The crash site is near the Russian border.
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Amid wide calls for an international investigation, doubts arose about whether the evidence was being compromised before inspectors ever reach the scene.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed in a phone call on Saturday that the sides should enter talks and stop fighting, according to a Kremlin statement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. counterpart John Kerry took a similar view, a Foreign Ministry statement said.
At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday, the U.S. pointed blame at the separatists, saying Washington believes the jetliner likely was downed by an SA-11 missile and "we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel."
The biggest challenge for investigators will be the preservation of wreckage evidence, said former aviation accident investigator Shawn Pruchnicki.
"If they get ahold of the part of the wreckage where the missile struck that will send them a significant distance into being able to determine what kind of missile took down the plane," Pruchnicki told CBC News. "They are going to need chemical residue from the explosive warhead combined with radar traces of the missile. But there is just unbelievable contamination of this scene."
The government in Kyiv said militiamen have removed 38 bodies from the crash site and have taken them to the rebel-held city of Donetsk. It said 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 Saturday.
In Donetsk, separatist leader Alexander Borodai denied that any bodies had been transferred or that the rebels had in any way interfered with the work of observers. He said he encouraged the involvement of the international community in assisting with the cleanup before the conditions of the bodies worsens significantly.
Putin pressured to help
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 — echoing a demand that U.S. President Barack Obama issued a day earlier from Washington.
On Saturday, in the village of Hrabove, one passenger's body was seen still strapped into an airline seat, with bare toes peeking out under long jeans. Another body was flung face-up into a field of blue flowers.
Treatment of the victims' remains, left in the open air under a hot summer sun punctuated by bursts of rainfall, has provoked outrage and distress.
"The news we got today of the bodies being dragged around, of the site not being treated properly, has really created a shock in the Netherlands," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told the Ukrainian president in Kyiv. "People are angry, are furious at what they hear."
Timmermans demanded the culprits be found.
"Once we have the proof, we will not stop until the people are brought to justice," he said.
Merkel and Putin agreed on Saturday that an independent, international commission led by the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, should be granted swift access to the crash site, German government spokesman Georg Streiter and the Kremlin said.
The commission should examine the circumstances of the crash and recover the victims, said Streiter, adding that Merkel urged Putin to use his influence over the separatists to make that happen.
"Canada joins Australia, Malaysia, the Netherlands and other friends and allies around the world in insisting on a credible and unimpeded international investigation," Foreign Minister John Baird said. "We demand that armed pro-Russian forces immediately withdraw from the crash site to allow Ukrainian and international authorities to conduct their investigative and forensic work."
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a video statement the international community is demanding separatists provide free access to the crash site, that the victims' bodies are properly recovered and the evidence is secured.
"Russia has a key role to play in that through its influence on the separatists and the world's eyes will be on Russia to see that she delivers on her obligations over the next few hours," he said.
In the Netherlands, forensic teams fanned out across the country Saturday to collect material, including DNA samples, which will help positively identify the remains of the 192 Dutch victims.
Police said in a tweet that 40 pairs of detectives from the National Forensic Investigations Team would be visiting victims' relatives over the coming days.
The location of the black boxes remains a mystery and the separatist leadership remained adamant Saturday that it hadn't located them.
A spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's monitoring mission in Ukraine, which has a 24-member delegation that was given limited access to the crash site, also said he had received no information on their whereabouts.
Black boxes won't hold the answer
Aviation experts say, however, not to expect too much from the flight data and cockpit voice recorders in understanding how Flight 17 was brought down.
The most useful evidence that's likely to come from the crash scene is whether missile pieces can be found in the trail of debris that came down as the plane exploded, said John Goglia, a U.S. aviation safety expert and former National Transportation Safety Board member.
The operation of Flight 17 doesn't appear to be an issue, he said.
The boxes will, however, provide insight on where the missile struck on the aircraft if that is what took it down, Pruchnicki said.
"If it hit the engines first or if it struck the body and there was catastrophic breakup. This event sequence will help us understand what type of missile it was — heat-seeking versus a radar lock," he said.
Obama 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.
Malaysia Airlines, meanwhile, said Saturday it has no immediate plans to fly victims' relatives to visit the crash 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.
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.
CBC's Paul Hunter reports from NYC, where organizers say at least 100,000 people are taking part in a march through Manhattan
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