- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2014

Pro-Russia separatists seized control of recovered bodies from the downed Malaysian airliner Sunday in eastern Ukraine as U.S. and international officials urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to rein in the rebels so investigators could have unimpeded access to the crash site.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry also said there was growing evidence that Russia was arming the rebels and provided them with the weaponry that took down the plane, but he stopped short of directly blaming Moscow for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Thursday.

“It’s pretty clear that this is a system that was transferred from Russia in the hands of separatists,” Mr. Kerry said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We know with confidence that the Ukrainians did not have such a system anywhere near the vicinity at that point in time, so it obviously points a very clear finger at the separatists.”

On Sunday, rebels and Ukrainian officials battled over the possession of bodies still being recovered from the crash site and other evidence from the plane. Ukraine and the separatists have blamed each other for launching a surface-to-air missile that brought down the passenger jet and killed all 298 people onboard.

Pro-Russia rebel leader Alexander Borodai said rebels have recovered the black boxes from the downed jetliner and will turn them over to the International Civil Aviation Organization. Mr. Borodai denied that the separatists have interfered with the investigation and said bodies recovered from the site would remain in refrigerated train cars until an international aviation delegation arrived.

Ukrainian officials were preparing a disaster crisis center in Kharkiv. Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman said 192 bodies and eight body parts were loaded onto railway cars.

But Mr. Borodai said the bodies will remain in Torez, about 9 miles from the crash site, until an expected team of 12 Malaysians arrived on scene.

The U.S. Embassy in Kiev issued a strong statement pointing to Russian complicity in arming the rebels, saying it has concluded “that Flight MH17 was likely downed by a SA-11 surface-to-air missile from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine.”

Asked whether he believed Russia and Mr. Putin were culpable for the downing of the jetliner, Mr. Kerry responded that culpability is a “judicial term.”

“People can make their own judgments about what they read here,” he said. “That is why we’ve asked for a full-fledged investigation.”

But Mr. Kerry and other world leaders said Sunday that Mr. Putin must get involved.

“This is a very, very critical moment for Russia to step up publicly and join in the effort in order to make sure there is a full-fledged investigation,” he said on CNN. “We want the facts. And the fact that the separatists are controlling this in a way that is preventing people from getting there even as the site is tampered with makes its own statement about culpability and responsibility.”

French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron also issued a joint statement demanding that Mr. Putin allow rescuers and investigators to have unfettered access to the site.

According to the government of Australia, which had at least 37 citizens on the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight, the U.N. Security Council could hold a vote as early as Monday on a resolution demanding international access to the crash site. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Tony Abbott said they did not expect Russia to veto the measure.

The U.S. recently imposed another round of sanctions on two top Russian banks and energy companies, among others, but Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that they’re not enough.

“Let’s face it, the president of the United States is the only person who can stop Putin from this act of aggression,” said Mr. McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, though he added that European countries also have a role to play.

But the ongoing battle over the circumstances surrounding the downed jetliner itself and the aftermath represents yet another devolution in U.S.-Russian relations after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, formerly a part of Ukraine, and continued fighting by Russian-backed rebels along eastern Ukraine’s border with Russia.

Asked on CNN whether she believes U.S.-Russian relations are now at Cold War levels, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, responded simply, “Yes.”

Mrs. Feinstein said the nexus between Russia and the separatist rebels has been established “very clearly.”

“So the issue is where is Putin?” she said. “And I would say, ‘Putin, you have to man up. You should talk to the world. You should say if this was a mistake — which I hope it was — say it.’ Even if it was a mistake, it’s a horrendous mistake to make.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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