More than 190 bodies have been discovered at the MH17 crash site, but Ukrainian government officials said Saturday pro-Russian militants hampered efforts to remove the remains.
"The fighters have allowed Emergencies Ministry workers in there, but they do not allow them to take anything from the area," Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told reporters at a news conference in Kiev. "The fighters are taking away all that has been found."
The claim came amid mounting global outrage over the treatment of the MH17 crash victims' remains. Later, the separatists relented.
At least 100 rescue workers, 18 equipment units and 70 Ministry of Home Affairs staff are taking part in the operation on the Ukrainian side of the border and the scene they are scouring is about 16 square miles, Lysenko said. Emergency workers have explored about 11 square miles of debris while being watched by the gunmen, he added.
Lysenko said the 30 agents from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are limited to a “narrow corridor.”
"The militants shoot into the air when OSCE observers try to move outside the perimeter defined for them,” Lysenko said, according to the Ukrainian news agency, Liga.
A Russian rebel leader, meanwhile, called on Russia to help retrieve and store bodies that have been lying in a field for two days.
Alexander Borodai, the prime minister of the self-proclaimed pro-Russian Donetsk People's Republic, told reporters that his officials do not have enough space to store the human remains.
Concern, confusion and anger continued to grow Saturday about access to the area and the fate of the 298 killed Thursday when the Boeing 777 crashed into a field in eastern Ukraine near the border with Russia.
The Malaysian government demanded the victims be treated with "dignity and respect," while a statement posted on the Ukrainian government's website accused Russia of helping pro-separatist rebels "destroy the evidence of an international crime."
The Ukrainian statement also claimed militants took 38 bodies to a morgue in Donetsk where experts "with thick Russian accents" said they would perform autopsies.
But monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Ukrainian Emergency Situations Agency were at least allowed to visit part of the site containing debris and speak to locals.
"They are letting us work peacefully today," said Ruslan Kravchuk, the duty officer of the Ukrainian Emergency Situations Agency.
Still, OSCE officials were proceeding with caution in the war zone. "We have to be very careful with our movements because of all the security," OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw told reporters in a phone call from the site. "We are unarmed civilians, so we are not in a position to argue with people with heavy arms."
This was progress from Friday when OSCE monitors were turned away by gunmen who were "impolite and unprofessional" and also seemingly drunk.
Borodai, the rebel leader, countered that his followers didn’t attempt to stop observers from getting to the field of debris and remains.
"The OSCE and other observers are taking too long to get to the site," he claimed.
Speculation is swirling over what was behind the disaster, with some experts alleging that a Russian-made SA-11 Buk missile struck the Kuala Lumpur-bound plane. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Ukraine's government is responsible for the disaster.
"The government over whose territory it occurred is responsible for this terrible tragedy," he said.
Sasha Mazikina, Albina Kovalyova and Elisha Fieldstadt contributed to this report. Reuters and The Associated Press also contributed.
First published July 19 2014, 7:53 AM