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Vital evidence feared withheld by Ukraine's rebels


LONDON (AP) -- "What exactly are they trying to hide?" President Barack Obama asked Monday as he demanded that Ukrainian rebels give investigators access to the wreckage of the downed jetliner.

The answer is: potentially a lot.

Aviation and defense experts say the victims' bodies could contain missile shrapnel. Chemical residue on the plane could confirm the type of weapon that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. And the location of the wreckage could yield information on how the attack unfolded.

The black boxes could offer vital clues as well. The cockpit voice recorder would record the bang of a missile. The data recorders, which register altitude and position, would be able to tie that information to the timing of a known missile launch in the area.

"You can effectively backtrack and give a relatively high degree of confidence in the location where that missile took off from," said a Manchester, England-based aviation industry consultant, Chris Yates. "If that location happens to be in rebel-held territory, which we all suspect it is, that would be the first point where you could point the finger of blame."

But while anguished families waited to take possession of their loved ones' remains, and investigators waited for the rebels to hand over the black boxes, independent observers warned that the pro-Moscow separatists had tampered with the debris and failed to secure the crash site. And the U.S. and its allies fumed that the rebels are trying to cover up evidence they shot down the plane.

Yates warned that the rebels may have already compromised the probe.

"What is gained, of course, is the possibility that whatever evidence remains of a missile strike can be obliterated," he said. "That's the bottom line, I suppose."

In this still mysterious tragedy, for example, the bodies themselves could offer precious clues. A missile from a Russian-made SA-11 mobile launcher, also known as a Buk, would explode outside the target aircraft, hurling shrapnel into the plane. Some bodies might bear the telltale wounds.

"While the stated reasons for removing some of the bodies to a refrigerated train - to protect them from wild animals and slow their decomposition - may be genuine, the bodies, too, are evidence," said Keir Giles, an expert on security at the Chatham House think tank.

Lyubov Kudryavets, a worker at the Torez morgue, told The Associated Press that last Thursday, after the plane went down over eastern Ukraine, a resident brought in the bloody body of a child, about 7 or 8 years old. On Saturday, she said, pro-Russian militiamen came to claim it.

"They began to question me: `Where are the fragments of rocket? Where are the fragments from the plane?'" Kudryavets said. "But I didn't have any wreckage. ... I swear."

Rebel leader Alexander Borodai has denied he and his comrades-in-arms were trying to tamper with evidence, saying the bodies would be turned over to Malaysian experts.

As of Monday, the remains of 282 people had been reported recovered. A total of 298 people were killed in the downing of the Boeing wide-body jet; some bodies may have been all but obliterated.

A team of international observers suggested that some of the evidence may have been tampered with.

At the biggest site on Monday, "we did not see any perimeter security in the place," Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told reporters in Donetsk. The monitors observed that one of the largest pieces of debris - apparently a large cone section - "had somewhat been split or moved apart."

On an earlier visit to one of the smaller impact sites, where the cockpit and beginning of the first-class section lay, the observers also witnessed apparent tampering.

"We observed workers there hacking into the fuselage with gas-powered equipment," Bociurkiw said.

The alternative explanation for the slow pace of examination and restricted access to the site is simply that a war is going on, said Michael Desch, an expert on international security at the University of Notre Dame.

"I think that what people are missing is that this tragedy has taken place in an active war zone - the Ukrainian Army is today operating against Donetsk - and given that, it is not surprising that the rebels are not being as cooperative as they might otherwise be," he said in an email.

Besides that, eastern Ukraine wasn't known as a model of organization even before the conflict began. The rebel groups that have seized control haven't installed civil institutions that could cordon off the site or organize the orderly removal of bodies.

Russia experts like Andrew Weiss at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington said that sheer incompetence, rather than criminal intent, cannot be ruled out as an explanation for the way the rebels are handling the disaster.

"There's just a lot of chaos on the ground," Weiss said. "Everything being messed up is part of daily life. It's not a highly ordered society the way Switzerland is. It's one thing to say it is part of a big conspiracy ... but it's not clear."

Whether by accident or design, the lack of swift access to the crash site may make it harder to determine who and what doomed the jet. And persistent doubts could benefit Russian President Vladimir Putin and undermine the push in the West to impose further sanctions against Moscow.

"It's really a mess," Weiss said. "The question is: Does that mess have some political benefits for Russia?"

Join the discussion

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petpetdon July 21 2014 at 5:38 PM

Obama we have been asking the same question of you for the past 6 years.....What are YOU trying to hide?

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28 replies
dhsdome July 21 2014 at 5:36 PM

If you delay long enough evidence will magically vanish just like the IRS e-mails.

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5 replies
crypt585 July 21 2014 at 5:58 PM

I have to admit Obama does know more about withholding evidence than anyone on the globe.

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4 replies
crypt585 July 21 2014 at 5:47 PM

It is time to quit voting "present" and actually hold Russia responsible for their actions. Forget leading from behind. It is time to lead the world in telling Putin that this is enough. Form a coalition with all the countries that had citizens on board that plane and choke Russia with some serious sanctions.

Flag Reply +18 rate up
8 replies
Brenda July 21 2014 at 5:48 PM

The only sanction Putin will respond to is a well placed bullet.

If the Ukrainian Rebels want to rebel, that's their business.

When they shot down, and killed, "innocent civilians," it's everyone's business.

Flag Reply +17 rate up
4 replies
douglas1s July 21 2014 at 5:46 PM

Heard it all, now lets get back to our problems, like our "secure" borders! Everytime Obama's pressured on the home front, something like this happens, to draw us away!

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8 replies
tomkota July 21 2014 at 6:58 PM


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2 replies
Randy1953 tomkota July 21 2014 at 7:40 PM

Bush is not President anymore .

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edcalz tomkota July 21 2014 at 7:45 PM

Give us some clues pleeease...

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Meh... July 21 2014 at 5:30 PM

Well it is very obvious that evidence has been tampered with and most likely destroyed. In my opinion this seals the fate of the russian rebels... I mean if they have nothing to hide, why would they hide so much? They don't seem quite intelligent enough to figure out how to destroy ALL evidence though, so hopefully there will still be enough intact to give a definitive on what happened. Unless trained Russians helped them, then maybe they got everything.

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2 replies
MD Meh... July 21 2014 at 6:46 PM

You could substitute "IRS", for "Russia" and the same questions/ statements would be valid

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1 reply
bigpapapuff425 MD July 21 2014 at 7:38 PM

And just how many people died in your so called IRS scandal?! Oh yeah, that's right, nobody died!! Very stupid of you to compare the IRS to the Russian separitists that most likely killed two hundred and ninety eight people! Perhaps if you used a little common sense you wouldn't look like such a fool!

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goodgrief61945 Meh... July 21 2014 at 8:15 PM

They got everything. You can bet on it.

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bunnysgems July 21 2014 at 5:53 PM

We do know where that missle came from? But American Citizens and others will not know! US will not tell us, and Russia also knows. The only ones who dont know are Ukraine and the so called rebel's. I commend them for getting the dead bodies and plane stuff in train cargos and getting them out of the WAR ZONE! To me the bigger question is WHY DID THAT PLANE GO IN THAT WAR ZONE IN THE FIRST PLACE? That would be like lets fly a plane in Gaza right now! Really, what was the AIRLINE THINKING? I say we stay out of it, the US does not need to get involved. We have enough on our plate not knowing the many other areas of WAR ZONES going on through the many countries of our WORLD.

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4 replies
ram4131 July 21 2014 at 6:38 PM

Nothing will come of an investigation that has been trampled through by a parade of inept Russian buffoons.

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3 replies
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