Russian-supported rebels backed down and allowed a refrigerated train carrying the bodies of Malaysia Airlines victims out of their territory in Ukraine, as President Obama and other Western leaders warned Russian President Vladimir Putin to speed up cooperation with the crash probe and to rein in fighters loyal to Moscow.
In another sign of a break in the stalemate over the investigation into the Thursday crash of Flight 17, the rebels turned over the plane’s black boxes to Malaysian investigators Monday night.
Behind the scenes, the U.S. was pressing the European Union to ratchet up economic sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine. The EU has been resisting penalties that would target wide swaths of Russia’s economy.
Europe’s reluctance is partly the result of fears that sanctions against Moscow could boomerang and hurt the economy on the Continent, which has close ties to Russia. Given the large number of Europeans killed in the plane crash, however, the EU may be more motivated to impose tougher penalties.
“We have to make sure the truth is out and accountability exists,” Mr. Obama said Monday from the South Lawn of the White House.
He accused separatists of removing evidence and bodies from the site. “What exactly are they trying to hide?” he said.
The Ukrainian government and the Obama administration have been trying to pin responsibility on separatists for the deaths of all 298 people aboard the plane. Officials also have pointed a finger at Russia, arguing that it would be all but impossible for insurgents to operate the sophisticated missile system needed to shoot down a passenger jet without some level of assistance from Russia.
Mr. Obama offered no new evidence Monday as to who was responsible for shooting down the plane, but he called on Mr. Putin to compel separatists to stop hampering the probe at the crash site and allow international investigators unfettered access.
Before Mr. Obama spoke, Mr. Putin issued a defiant warning that the MH17 disaster must not be used for “selfish political ends” and urged separatists to allow international investigators access to the crash site.
The Russian president insisted that “all people” in Ukraine had a responsibility to the families of the passengers and crew, but he added: “No one has the right to use this tragedy for any kind of vested interest in the political sense. Such incidents should unite people rather than separate them.”
Although the Russian economy has slumped sharply this year, analysts debate the effects of sanctions and say Mr. Putin has shown no signs of abandoning his aims in Ukraine under the threat of further sanctions.
“It is not quite clear what sanctions would impose costs sufficiently large as to induce Putin to accept the unacceptable, i.e., abandonment of the goal of forcing [eastern] Ukraine into the Russian sphere of interest,” said Benjamin Zycher, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute. “This would require a degree or cooperation and coordination among the U.S. and Europeans unlikely to be observed even in the aftermath of the airliner atrocity.”
It’s also not clear how much influence Mr. Putin and his cronies have on the separatists in eastern Ukraine, said Judy Krutky, a professor of political science and international studies at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio.
“Since technically Russia isn’t in Ukraine, the question is would sanctions impact Putin and his advisers and cause them to try and change the behavior of the separatists in eastern Ukraine who want more freedom from the Ukrainian government,” she said. “Putin seems to have some influence on them, but how much isn’t clear. The connections between all these actors are tenuous at best.”
In London, British Prime Minister David Cameron called on Mr. Putin to pull back or face broader sanctions.
“President Putin faces a clear choice in how he decides to respond to this appalling tragedy,” Mr. Cameron told Parliament. “I hope that he will use this moment to find a path out of this festering and dangerous crisis by ending Russia’s support for the separatists.”
If not, Mr. Cameron said, “then Europe and the West must fundamentally change our approach to Russia.”
“For too long, there has been reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine,” Mr. Cameron said. “It is time to make our power, influence and resources felt.”
Mr. Obama said Russia “has extraordinary influence over these separatists” and warned Mr. Putin that Russia faces further economic isolation if Moscow “continues to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty and to back these separatists.”
“These separatists now are risks not simply to the people inside of Ukraine but the broader international community,” Mr. Obama said. “Now is the time for President Putin and Russia to pivot away from the strategy that they’ve been taking and get serious about trying to resolve hostilities within Ukraine in a way that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and respects the right of the Ukrainian people to make their own decisions about their own lives.”
EU foreign ministers scheduled to meet in Brussels on Tuesday are unlikely to punish Russia with further sanctions, but might speed up sanctions already imposed.
Diplomats made clear that sanctions would be onerous for many EU nations. They are especially nervous about the energy sector, which is central to the Russian economy and to the European Union.
EU nations rely on Russia for about 30 percent of their gas demand and have intertwined interests based on decades of energy reliance.
According to U.N. data, excluding Russian pipeline gas exports to the EU — about $60 billion a year — the Netherlands was the biggest destination for Russian exports last year, mostly of oil and metals.
“Energy sanctions would most likely derail the fragile European recovery in general and could even lead to a complete economic collapse in certain member states,” one diplomat said. “I don’t see how collective economic suicide serves us or the Ukrainians.”
Agony and frustration
At the site of the plane crash, the remains of 16 people were still missing four days after Flight 17 was shot out of the sky, Ukrainian officials said. The Ukrainian government issued a statement earlier saying that 282 bodies and 87 “body fragments” had been recovered from the sprawling crash site.
A train carrying the remains of 251 of the passengers left the area Monday evening, video from the scene showed. The train arrived at the eastern city of Kharkiv on Tuesday morning, CNN said.
The bodies eventually will be taken to Amsterdam. Among the victims, 193 were Dutch.
Families and friends of Dutch passengers poured out their grief and anger at a meeting with their monarch and political leaders.
“This terrible disaster has left a deep wound in our society,” a somber King Willem-Alexander said after a private meeting with the next of kin. “The scar will be visible and tangible for years to come.”
The Dutch widely condemned the way the bodies were treated in Ukraine and the fact that they had not been returned.
In an unusual move that underscored the severity of the trauma, the king gave a brief televised address to the nation after his meeting near Utrecht with hundreds of grieving relatives and friends.
“Many people said to us, ‘We at least want to take dignified leave of our loved ones,’” he said. “We understand their frustration and their pain. And we share their heartfelt wish for clarity on the cause of this disaster.”
Reporting from Russia’s tightly controlled media, which has favored the rebels throughout the conflict in Ukraine, has largely supported Mr. Putin’s positions and diverged sharply from Western coverage.
Russian media drew parallels with a Russian passenger jet carrying 78 people that the Ukrainian military mistakenly shot down in 2001 as it flew over the Black Sea.
An aviation source cited by Kremlin-owned news outlet RT also suggested that Ukrainian forces may have fired a rocket at the Boeing 777, mistaking the Malaysian airliner for Mr. Putin’s jet returning from a summit in Brazil.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.