Pro-Russian fighters believed to be hampering chaotic attempts to recover bodies from MH17 wreckage. Emergency workers say passengers’ property has been rifled through and looted.
In the corpse-strewn paddocks around the Ukrainian village of Grabovo the smell of death is strong.
“We’ve found and counted roughly 200 bodies, though that is only a rough figure – lots of them are in bits,” said the sunburned captain from the Ukrainian emergency services. “There’s still 100 out there somewhere. We aim to find them all tomorrow.”
The task is vast. With a search area 20km in diameter, covering villages, wheat fields and woodland, and with some of the 298 victims of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 literally blown to pieces, it is possible some of the bodies may never be found.
“We have two jobs: find the bodies, and mark them for the inspectors,” the captain said. “Don’t ask me anything else.”
The comment revealed much, not only about the vast scale of the tragedy and the chaotic nature of the situation on the ground, but also about who is really in charge of this recovery operation.
Armed pro-Russian rebel fighters, allegedly backed by Moscow, control the area where the remains of flight MH17 came to earth and have assumed a police role at the wreckage sites, setting up cordons and overseeing the recovery and removal of bodies.
On Saturday they oversaw workers removing bodies – and, it is believed, the flight recorders – from the cockpit section of the plane, which ploughed into a sunflower field near the village of Rosipnoye. Yesterday they moved on to the main crash site in Grabovo.
While Ukrainian emergency workers tried to recover the bodies of the 298 victims yesterday, masked rebel gunmen, some bearing shoulder patches identifying themselves as loyal to the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic, continued to swarm into the area.
As the sun climbed higher, and the rumble of distant shellfire rolled over the horizon, previously deserted fields filled with figures taking measurements, while squads of workers with stretchers collected corpses.
The rebels insisted this was “perfectly normal procedure” for dealing with such a disaster, but the Ukrainian Government accused them of destroying evidence and hiding bodies in a bid to cover up traces of what many Western governments believe is their culpability for the disaster.
By early afternoon about 60 unmarked black body bags lay on the roadside awaiting collection. No attempt appeared to have been made to identify where they lay.
It was unclear where the bodies would be taken, whether any effort had been made to identify them, or whether the emergency workers at the scene were even capable of carrying out a proper forensic investigation under the noses of the rebel fighters.
When asked where the bodies would be transported, a rebel soldier said they would be loaded on to a refrigerated transportation vehicle for temporary storage. “They’re not going anywhere yet,” he snapped, when asked which morgues they might be destined for.
According to witnesses, two large trucks, apparently driven by rebel militiamen, had left the scene, stacked with many corpses.
Rebel officials have said they will grant full access to the site to investigators from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, although a delegation that made it to the area yesterday was accompanied by heavily-armed men. It was difficult to tell how far the chaos was a matter of obstruction and how much a matter of an ill-equipped state machinery.
Until yesterday morning, the emergency workers – local members of the agency responsible for firefighting and other paramedic help – had paced dozens of square kilometres planting sticks bearing white ribbons wherever they found human remains.
Under orders not to disturb any bodies until an investigation unit arrived to inspect the scene, they did not move the naked and increasingly swollen corpses lying just feet from the entrance to their tents.
But no such team arrived, and as time wore on the bodies swelled and the stench grew worse. The handful of rebel gunmen stationed with them for the first day and night left to respond to reports of a Ukrainian attack on Saturday.
Emergency workers said they had little doubt looting had taken place. Some carry-on baggage strewn around the field showed signs of being rifled through, with clothes laid beside cases that have not burst open.
In some places personal effects including books, clothes and children’s toys have been piled up and handled. “We’ve had people bring in passports – mostly Dutch, one Indonesian I think. But you don’t know what they held on to,” one worker said.
Sergei, a 53-year-old rebel guarding the remains of the cockpit, said: “We’ll deal with looters in short order. Because otherwise everyone is going to accuse us of lying. We want an investigation.”
Who downed the plane?
The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post reported that Moscow likely provided separatists with multiple SA-11 antiaircraft systems this month by smuggling them into eastern Ukraine with other military equipment. US officials believe the systems were moved back over the border after the disaster.
Ukrainian government adviser Anton Herashchenko claims the plane was hit by a missile fired by a Buk SA-11 launcher, a Russian-made surface-to-air missile system. Photographs of such a launcher in the town of Snezhne, near the crash site, appear on the internet. Later, photographs of a Buk being moved on a transporter from Ukraine to Russia appear.
Ukrainian authorities released a recording they claim is a conversation between pro-Russia militants admitting to shooting down the plane. A rebel fighter going by the nom de guerre of “Major” is heard telling another comrade called “Grek” that a group of fighters had brought the airliner down. “The plane broke up in the air, near the Petropavlovskaya mines. The first [casualty] has been found. It was a woman. A civilian,” he says. “Major” acknowledges the plane was civilian. “Hell. It’s almost 100 per cent certain that it’s a civilian plane.” In another recording, a Russian officer called Igor Bezler is apparently heard reporting on the downing of the jet to his superior in Russian military intelligence, Colonel Vasily Geranin. “A plane has just been shot down … They’ve gone to search and photograph the plane. It is smoking.” In a third conversation, a rebel fighter says: “It turned out to be a passenger plane. It fell in Hrabove area. There’s a sea of women and children …”
A posting on an account linked to a pro-Russia separatist leader in Ukraine, on a Russian social network site, claimed that militants shot down at least one Ukrainian military plane near the Donetsk region town of Torez. The post has been deleted.
Satellite images show a plume of smoke left by a ground-to-air missile. The images helped to compile an intelligence analysis shared with the UN Security Council by US ambassador Samantha Power, which she claimed showed the airliner was “likely downed by a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, operated from a separatist-held location in eastern Ukraine”. The location of the missile launch appears crucial. “It strains credulity to think [the missile] could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance,” said Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby.
At least 36 Australian citizens and residents died in the MH17 disaster
AVNON, Itamar. The 27-year-old Dutch national was a student at Melbourne’s Swinburne University, living in Windsor. He had been visiting his family in Amsterdam and attended a wedding in Israel. He was on his way back to Australia to resume his business studies.
DAVISON, Liam and Francesca. Liam, 57, was an award-winning novelist, teacher and keen cyclist. Francesca, 54, taught at Toorak College (Mt Eliza) for 28 years and also worked with disadvantaged communities in Sri Lanka. They leave two children, Milly and Sam.
GRIPPELING, Marco. IT security consultant, 48, and Dutch national from Melbourne. His wife, family and friends are devastated by his loss. His wife, Angela, had been holidaying with him but reportedly took an earlier flight back to Australia.
LEE, Gary and Mona. Gary and Mona Lee, from Glen Iris, had been on a European holiday which included a cruise. Gary, a retiree, had run a Chinese restaurant while his wife Mona, was a schoolteacher. The couple had moved to Melbourne from Malaysia in the 70s. The couple have two daughters, both doctors, who live in Melbourne.
MAHLER, Emiel and TEOH, Elaine. The couple, both 27, were on their way to a wedding in Malaysia. Teoh, originally from Penang in Malaysia, and Mahler, a Dutch national, lived in Melbourne where they worked in the finance sector. (It’s understood that Teoh, as a Malaysian national, wouldn’t be included in the Australian death toll.)
MENKE, Gerry and Mary. Gerry Menke and his Kiwi wife Mary owned an abalone pearl company in Mallacoota and have been described as a “beautiful couple”. The business recently won a prize at the East Gippsland Business Awards.
RIZK, Albert and Maree. The husband and wife from Sunbury, north of Melbourne, have two children, James and Vanessa. Albert and Maree were returning to Australia after a month-long holiday in Europe, and reportedly had been trying to change their flight to avoid a long stopover in Kuala Lumpur. Rizk was a director of the local Raine & Horne real estate branch.
VAN DEN HENDE, Hans, Piers, Marnix, Margaux and DEWA, Shaliza. Hans van den Hende, his wife, Shaliza Dewa, and their three children Piers, Marnix and Margaux lived at Eynesbury, west of Melbourne. Piers, 13, played football at Melton Phoenix.
BAKER, Wayne and Theresa. The couple were aged 55 and 53 respectively. They have two sons, aged in their 20s. The Bakers were based in Buddina on the Sunshine Coast but also lived in Darwin. They recently retired and had been travelling around Europe for six weeks.
GUARD, Roger and Jill. Toowoomba couple and doctors Roger and Jill Guard were returning to Australia after holidaying following a medical conference. Roger Guard was director of pathology at Toowoomba Hospital and Jill Guard worked as a GP.
HORDER, Howard and Susan. The Brisbane couple, both 63, had been travelling in Europe. They have three sons living in Melbourne, the Sunshine Coast and London.
SIDELIK, Helena. The Gold Coast woman, aged in her late 50s, was reportedly travelling home from a friend’s wedding in Europe, according to the Gold Coast Bulletin. She had moved to Burleigh from Melbourne four years ago. She was originally from Adelaide.
Western Australia, 7:
MASLIN, Mo, 12, Evie, 10, Otis, 8. Grandchildren of Nick Norris. Parents Rin Maslin and her husband Anthony Maslin had stayed behind in Amsterdam while Norris brought the children home in time for the new school term.
MAHADY, Edel. The Irishwoman, 50, was returning to Perth for the start of school term at Good Shepherd Catholic Primary School, Kelmscott, where she worked as an administrator. Her husband and children were not on the flight, according to the Irish Independent.
NORRIS, Nick. Nick Norris was the managing director of management consulting firm Collaborative Systemic Change Pty. Survived by daughter Kirstin, who is in the navy and living in Sydney, son Brack, daughter Rin Maslin, another child and wife Lindy, a Murdoch University professor.
RYDER, Arjen and Yvonne. Albany local and Department of Agriculture and Food employee Arjen was travelling with his wife Yvonne. Her sister Anne Trudgeon told Perth Now she’s lost a “beautiful” sister and brother in-law.
New South Wales, 5:
CLANCY, Michael and Carol. Retired Wollongong couple Michael and Carol Clancy, believed to be in their 60s, are understood to have been on the flight following a three-week European holiday. A close friend of the Kanahooka couple, Gail Leila Rhind, said Carol Clancy’s former husband told her the couple had been killed.
O’BRIEN, Jack. Jack O’Brien, 25, was on his way home to Sydney after a seven-week European holiday. Family members said they were devastated his life had been cut short so suddenly. “He was loved so much,” the family said. (It is not yet clear if O’Brien is a citizen or permanent resident).
ORESHKIN, Victor. Victor Oreshkin, in his 30s, was returning home after a five-week trip to Europe. He is believed to be of Russian background. According to his church’s pastor, Oreshkin was a religious man who was involved in church ministry.
TIERNAN, Philomene. Sister Philomene Tiernan, 77, a nun who taught at Kincoppal at Rose Bay, died. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull tweeted: “Many women incl (sic) my wife Lucy & daughter Daisy were inspired by the love of Sr Phil Tiernan RSCJ.”
DERDEN, Liliane. Mother of two Liliane Derden, 50, was from Hall in Canberra’s north. Derden worked for the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Northern Territory, 1:
BELL, Emma. A young Homelands teacher aged in her 20s, joined the staff at Maningrida College early last year. She was spending the school holidays in Europe before returning to the Northern Territory for the new term beginning next week.
The NT Government initially claimed the Bakers, based in Queensland, in the territory toll. DFAT’s official Australian toll is 28 known citizens and eight permanent residents.