Body-Laden Refrigerated Train Sets Out, From Ukraine

By: From CBS News
By: From CBS News

HRABOVE, Ukraine (CBS News) -- Bowing to international pressure Monday, pro-Moscow separatists released a train packed with bodies and agreed to hand over the black boxes from the downed Malaysia Airlines plane, four days after it plunged into rebel-held eastern Ukraine.

With body parts decaying in sweltering heat and signs that evidence at the crash site was mishandled, anger in Western capitals has mounted at the rebels and their allies in Moscow. Their reluctant cooperation will soothe mourning families and help investigators, but may do little to reconcile the East-West powers struggling over Ukraine's future.The bodies of the 298 victims, most from the Netherlands, have become a part of the conflict in Ukraine because they could hold evidence of what brought the plane down on July 17 as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The train departure came hours after the Malaysian prime minister announced Monday that an agreement has been reached with the Russian-back separatists in eastern Ukraine over access to the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site, and to the bodies of the victims.

In a statement, Prime Minister Najib Razak said that, "under difficult and fluid circumstances," an agreement has been reached with Alexander Borodai -- the rebel leader in charge of the region where the plane went down -- for access to the victims' remains and the plane's "black box" data and voice recorders.

According to Razak, the separatists have agreed to move the remains of 282 people currently in Torez, by train, to Kharkiv, where they will be handed over to representatives from the Netherlands.

The Ukrainian government is hoping it will go to the government-controlled eastern city of Kharkiv, where it has set up a crash crisis center, but the rebels have not confirmed any movement yet. Safe access to the crash site will also be guaranteed to independent international investigators, so that they may begin a full investigation.

"I ask that all parties continue to work together to ensure that this agreement is honored," said Razak. "Only then can the investigation into MH17 truly begin; only then can the victims be afforded the respect they deserve. We need to know what caused the plane to crash, and who was responsible for it, so that justice may be done."

The Boeing 777 crashed in rebel-held territory, and the separatists are being blamed by much of the international community (including the United States) for shooting it down.

On Sunday, Razak had said the remains of the Malaysian victims must be returned to Malaysia before the Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. This year, it falls on July 28.

Four days after Flight 17 was shot out of the sky, international investigators still have had only limited access to the crash site, hindered by the pro-Russia fighters who control the verdant territory in eastern Ukraine. Outrage over the delays and the possible tampering of evidence at the site was building worldwide, especially in the Netherlands, where 192 of the plane's 298 victims were Dutch and another was Dutch-American.

On Monday, AP journalists said the smell of decay was overwhelming at the train station in the rebel-held town of Torez, where the remains have been kept in parked, refrigerated train cars. Many of the inspectors wore masks or pressed cloths to their faces on the sunny, 84-degree Fahrenheit day.

Earlier, a Ukrainian train engineer told The Associated Press that a power outage had hit the cars' refrigeration system for several hours overnight but was back up early Monday.

The investigators led by Peter Van Vilet of the Dutch LTFO forensic office stood for a moment with their heads bowed and hands clasped before climbing aboard to inspect the train cars, surrounded by armed rebels.

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