* Ukraine says rebels hamper access to crash site
* Rebels say Kiev dragging its feet, black boxes not found
* Ukraine says experienced Russian crew fired fatal missile (Adds British comment, State Department statement on Kerry-Lavrov phone call; in paragraphs 7-8, 13, 21)
By Anton Zverev and Peter Graff
HRABOVE/DONETSK, Ukraine, July 19 (Reuters) - Ukraine accused Russia and pro-Moscow rebels on Saturday of destroying evidence to cover up their guilt in the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner that has accelerated a showdown between the Kremlin and Western powers.
As militants kept international monitors away from wreckage and scores of bodies festered for a third day, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the rebels to cooperate and insisted that a U.N.-mandated investigation must not leap to conclusions. Moscow denies involvement and has pointed a finger at Kiev's military.
The Dutch government, whose citizens made up most of the 298 aboard MH17 from Amsterdam, said it was "furious" at the manhandling of corpses strewn for miles over open country and asked Ukraine's president for help to bring "our people" home.
After U.S. President Barack Obama said the loss of the Kuala Lumpur-bound flight showed it was time to end the conflict, Germany called it Moscow's last chance to cooperate.
European powers seemed to swing behind Washington's belief Russia's separatist allies were to blame. That might speed new trade sanctions on Moscow, without waiting for definitive proof.
"He has one last chance to show he means to help," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after a telephone call to Putin.
Britain, which lost 10 citizens, said further sanctions were available for use against Russia. "If Russia is the principal culprit, we can take further action against them and make it clear this kind of sponsored war is completely unacceptable," Defense Minister Michael Fallon told the Mail on Sunday.
Prime Minister David Cameron, writing in The Sunday Times, said European countries should make their power count in dealing with the Ukraine crisis, "yet we sometimes behave as if we need Russia more than Russia needs us."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most powerful figure in the EU, spoke to Putin on Saturday, urging his cooperation. Merkel's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, told Bild am Sonntag newspaper: "Moscow may have a last chance now to show that it really is seriously interested in a solution."
"Now is the moment for everyone to stop and think to themselves what might happen if we don't stop the escalation."
Germany, reliant like other EU states on Russian energy and more engaged in Russian trade than the United States, has been reluctant to escalate a confrontation with Moscow that has revived memories of the Cold War. But with military action not seen as an option, economic leverage is a vital instrument.
Russia said on Saturday it was retaliating against sanctions imposed by the United States last week, before the air disaster, by barring entry to unnamed Americans and warned of a "boomerang effect" on U.S. business. But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did agree in a phone call to try to get both sides in Ukraine to reach a consensus on peace, Russia's Foreign Ministry said.
The State Department, however, put the onus on Russia, saying Kerry urged Russia to take "immediate and clear actions to reduce tensions in Ukraine."
Driving home its assertion that the Boeing 777 was hit by a Russian SA-11 radar-guided missile, Ukraine's Western-backed government said it had "compelling evidence" the battery was not just brought in from Russia but manned by three Russian citizens who had now taken the truck-mounted system back over the border.
The prime minister, denying Russian suggestions that Kiev's forces had fired a missile, said only a "very professional" crew could have brought down the speeding jetliner from 33,000 feet (10,000 meters) - not "drunken gorillas" among the ill-trained insurgents who want the Russian-speaking east to be annexed by Moscow.
Fighting flared in eastern Ukraine on Saturday. The government said it was pressing its offensive in the east.
Observers from Europe's OSCE security agency visited part of the crash site near the village of Hrabove for a second day on Saturday and again found their access hampered by armed men from the forces of the self-declared People's Republic of Donetsk. An OSCE official said, however, they saw more than on Friday.
At one point, a Reuters correspondent heard a senior rebel tell the OSCE delegation they could not approach the wreckage and would simply be informed in due course of an investigation conducted by the separatists. However, fighters later let them visit an area where one of the airliner's two engines lay.
"The terrorists, with the help of Russia, are trying to destroy evidence of international crimes," the Ukrainian government said in a statement. "The terrorists have taken 38 bodies to the morgue in Donetsk," it said, accusing people with "strong Russian accents" of threatening to conduct autopsies.
Ukraine's prime minister said armed men had barred government experts from collecting evidence.
Kerry told Lavrov the United States is "very concerned" over reports that the remains of victims and debris from the crash site have been removed or tampered with, the State Department said. He said Washington was also concerned over denial of "proper access" for international investigators and OSCE monitors, it said.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko urged the United Nations on Saturday to label rebels fighting his forces in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as belonging to "terrorist organizations".
In the regional capital Donetsk, the prime minister of the separatist authorities told a news conference that Kiev was holding up the arrival of international experts whose mission to probe the cause - and potentially blame - for the disaster was authorized on Friday by the United Nations Security Council.
And contrary to earlier statements by the rebels, Alexander Borodai said they had not found the black box flight recorders. He said rebels were avoiding disturbing the area.
"There's a grandmother. A body landed right in her bed. She says 'please take this body away'. But we cannot tamper with the site," Borodai said. "Bodies of innocent people are lying out in the heat. We reserve the right, if the delay continues ... to begin the process of taking away the bodies. We ask the Russian Federation to help us with this problem and send their experts."
Midday temperatures are around 30 Celsius (85 Fahrenheit).
At Hrabove, one armed man from the separatist forces told Reuters that bodies had already been taken away in trucks. Another said that immediately after the crash people had looted valuables. But fighters and local people say they have been doing their best to collect evidence and preserve human remains.
As the stench of death began to pervade the area after Thursday's crash, correspondents watched rescue workers carry bodies across the fields and gather remains in black sacks.
Meeting Ukrainian President Poroshenko in Kiev, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said: "We are already shocked by the news we got today of bodies being dragged around, of the site not being treated properly ... People are angry, furious."
The Ukrainian security council in Kiev said staff of the Emergencies Ministry had found 186 bodies and had checked some 18 sq km (seven square miles) of the scattered 25-sq-km (10-square-mile) crash site. But the workers were not free to conduct a normal investigation.
"The fighters have let the Emergencies Ministry workers in there but they are not allowing them to take anything from the area," security council spokesman Andriy Lysenko said. "The fighters are taking away all that has been found."
Malaysia, whose national airline has been battered by its second major disaster this year, said it was "inhumane" to bar access to the site around the village of Hrabove, but said Russia was doing its "level best" to help.
A team of Malaysian experts flew in to Kiev on Saturday and experts from Interpol are due there on Sunday to help with the identification of victims. Dutch, U.S. and a host of other specialists are being lined up to help in the investigation.
As tales of personal grief unfolded, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak revealed his own family was involved - his 83-year-old step-grandmother had been aboard the flight.
The United Nations said 80 children were aboard. The deadliest attack on a commercial airliner follows the disappearance of flight MH370 in March with 239 passengers.
Malaysia Airlines has defended its use of the route, 1,000 feet (300 meters) above the area closed by Ukraine due to the hostilities. Some airlines had been avoiding the area, though many others were flying over. The issue has raised questions of liability for the deaths and damage and about international supervisors' roles.The scale of the disaster could prove a turning point for international pressure to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, which has killed hundreds since pro-Western protests toppled the Moscow-backed president in Kiev in February and Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula a month later. (Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Elizabeth Piper in Kiev, Peter Graff in Donetsk, Siva Govindasamy and Al-Zaquan Amer Hamzah in Kuala Lumpur, Costas Pitas in London, and Eric Beech in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Andrew Heavens, Sonya Hepinstall and Mohammad Zargham)
A document shows that EU sanctions ar targeting Russian businesses, the AP reports:
A European Union document shows that among those targeted by the EU-wide asset freeze and travel ban are Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Russian Federal Security.
Also targeted is Sergei Beseda, head of the FSB service that oversees international operations and intelligence activity.
Associated Press journalists in Ukraine saw a BUK missile system -- the type that the US says downed Flight MH17 -- in rebel hands just hours before the plane was shot down, the news agency says in detailed account of the day's events. AP says that while the rebels officially deny responsibility, "the denials are increasingly challenged by accounts of residents, the observations of journalists on the ground, and the statements of one rebel official." Further, one rebel official told AP that they were behind the plane tragedy.
More from the AP story:
A highly placed rebel, speaking to the AP this week, admitted that rebels were responsible. He said a unit based in the hometown of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, made up of both Russians and Ukrainians, was involved in the firing of an SA-11 from near Snizhne. The rebel, who has direct access to the inner circle of the insurgent leadership in Donetsk, said that he could not be named because he was contradicting the rebels' official line.
The rebels believed they were targeting a Ukrainian military plane, this person said. Instead, they hit the passenger jet flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. All 298 people aboard were killed.
Read the full account here.
In a briefing on Friday, the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said there has been a "steady flow" of weapons from Russia into Ukraine, and emphasized the position that Russia played a role in the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal's Marketwatch reports.
Russia 'culpable' for Malaysia Air jet downed in Ukraine: White House http://t.co/bJR9bYh7js
— MarketWatch (@MarketWatch) July 25, 2014
The Pentagon said on Friday that the transfer of missile systems from Russia to separatists in Ukraine appeared to be imminent. On Thursday, the U.S. claimed that Russia had fired on Ukrainian military positions.
— Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) July 25, 2014
Ukraine's security service, SBU, on Friday released a recording it said was of a phone call between pro-Russian separatists discussing a plane overhead, minutes before the Malaysian Airlines jet was shot down over east Ukraine. “I see… Roger... Report it upstairs,” the rebel commander says, according to a translation.
Writing for Mashable, Christopher Miller notes that the recording has not been authenticated and the commander "stops short of giving the order to shoot down Flight 17," however the implication is clearly to build a case that the rebels shot down the plane.
Responding to U.S. officials assertion that Russia was firing artillery on Ukrainian military positions across the border, Russia on Friday countered by calling the claim a baseless "smear campaign,"AFP reports.
A statement from the Russian foreign ministry said, "Due to the smear campaign against us that the US Administration has begun... we reject the unfounded public insinuations that US deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf is spreading on a daily basis," adding that Harf has used "a basketful of these anti-Russian cliches," to influence perceptions of Russia. The statement refuted the U.S. State Departments claim on Russia targeting Ukraine military, saying "There are no facts or specifics about these falsehoods."
More from AFP.
-- Andrew Hart
#BREAKING: More than 15,000 Russian troops amassed along border with Ukraine: U.S. ambassador to NATO
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) July 25, 2014
The Pentagon said on Friday the transfer of heavy caliber multiple launch rocket systems from
Russia to Ukrainian separatists appeared to be imminent, with the arms close enough to the border they could be handed over "potentially today."
"We have indications that the Russians intend to supply heavier and more sophisticated multiple launch rocket systems in the very near future," said Army Colonel Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, adding that the weapons were in the over-200mm range.
Warren indicated the weapons had been seen getting closer to the border and the Pentagon believed a transfer was imminent and "potentially today."
"We believe that they are able to transfer this equipment at any time, at any moment," he said.
Pentagon: Russia readying powerful weapons for rebels in Ukraine, transfer could happen any time. http://t.co/xZnfkBUWSV
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) July 25, 2014
(Reuters) - Australia will send 100 additional police and some defense force personnel to Europe to join a planned Dutch-led international security force to secure the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash site, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Friday.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers, some of whom will be armed, will join a contingent of 90 AFP officers already in London waiting for a deal with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to be approved by Ukraine's parliament.
"This is a humanitarian mission, with a clear and simple objective," Abbott told reporters. "I expect the operation on the ground in Ukraine, should the deployment go ahead, to last no longer than a few weeks."
Read the full story here.
A leading Russian newspaper has issued an apology on its front page, asking for forgiveness from the people of the Netherlands who lost their loved ones in the Malaysian Airlines plane crash. The front page of Novaya Gazeta on Friday featured the words "Vergeef ons, Nederlands" (Forgive Us, Netherlands) in bold above a heartbreaking image of the line of hearses carrying MH17 victim's bodies.
Read the full story on the Huffington Post here.
CNN reports that the European Union slapped sanctions on 15 more people and 18 entities due to the Ukraine crisis, according to an announcement Friday. Already 87 people have been subject to EU-wide asset freezes and travel bans, as well as 20 entities, CNN said.
FIFA rejected calls to move the 2018 World Cup from Russia, saying the tournament "can achieve positive change."
Russia's alleged involvement in shooting down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine last week prompted calls from some lawmakers in Germany to review the country's hosting rights.
On Friday, FIFA issued a statement saying it "deplores any form of violence" and questioning the purpose of relocating the sport's showcase tournament.
"History has shown so far that boycotting sport events or a policy of isolation or confrontation are not the most effective ways to solve problems," FIFA said, adding that global attention on the World Cup "can be a powerful catalyst for constructive dialogue between people and governments."
New York-based human rights organization Human Rights Watch has accused both Ukrainian government forces and separatist rebels of using unguided Grad rockets, which they said had killed 16 civilians and wounded many more. “Grad rockets are notoriously imprecise weapons that shouldn’t be used in populated areas,” HRW researcher Ole Solvang said in a statement. "Ukrainian authorities should order all their forces, including volunteer forces, to immediately stop using Grads in or near populated areas, and insurgent forces should avoid deploying in densely populated areas," he added.
A view of proceedings during a memorial service held for victims of the MH17 disaster at St Mary's Cathedral on July 25, 2014 in Perth, Australia. (Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Russia said around 40 mortar shells fired by Ukrainian forces fell on Friday in its Rostov province near the border with eastern Ukraine where Kiev is fighting pro-Russian separatists.
"Around 40 mortar shells have fallen from Ukraine ... in Rostov province," Vasily Malayev, a representative of the region's Federal Security Service devoted to border security, was cited by the state Ria Novosti news agency as saying.
In a statement on Friday, the headquarters of the government's military operation in the east listed at least seven locations where rebels attacked Ukrainian troops. They also claimed that attacks on two locations including a border crossing were supported by artillery fire from Russia.
Late on Thursday, Ukrainian troops entered the town of Lysychansk, which has been in rebel hands for several months, the military press office said. Rebels on Friday morning admitted in comments carried by Interfax that they had to flee the town which is 70 kilometers (45 miles) north-west of the regional capital Luhansk.
The Associated Press reports the countries of the European Union have reached a preliminary deal to impose more sanctions on Russia.
BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union ambassadors have reached a preliminary deal on stepped-up sanctions against Russia, targeting its access to European capital markets and trade in the defense sector, dual-use goods and sensitive technologies.
EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic says the proposals were transmitted Friday to EU officials to codify into regulations, with the ambassadors scheduled to meet again Tuesday to review the results. She said EU member states must decide whether the measures need to be approved by a summit meeting of the trade bloc's 28 member countries to go into effect.
The ambassadors also ordered EU-wide asset freezes and travel bans for an undisclosed number of Russians and pro-Russian Ukrainians who are accused of undermining Ukraine's sovereignty. The names of those affected should be made public later Friday.
The black box flight recorders from the doomed Malaysia Airlines jet suffered slight damage in the attack and crash, Reuters reported.
"During the inspection it was established that the recorders have slight mechanical damage which did not affect the intactness of the recorders," Russia's Interstate Aviation Committee, a supervisory body that oversees the use and management of civil aviation, stated.
FMI: Click here.
Two more planes arrived in the Netherlands carrying the remains of victims on Thursday, AP reports:
Human remains continue to be found a full week after the plane went down, underlining concerns about the halting and chaotic recovery effort at the sprawling site spread across farmland in eastern Ukraine. Armed separatists control the area and have hindered access by investigators.
President Barack Obama spoke with Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte on the phone and they agreed that more sanctions need to be imposed on Russia, Reuters reports:
"Instead of de-escalating the situation, they agreed that all evidence indicates Russia is still arming and supplying separatists who continue to engage in deadly acts of aggression against Ukrainian armed forces," the White House said.
Foreign correspondents report shelling in the city of Donetsk on Thursday night.
The soothing lullaby of shelling. The war creeps close and closer to Donetsk city centre.
— Roland Oliphant (@RolandOliphant) July 24, 2014
Midnight in Donetsk. Sustained, low rumble of shelling in the distance. Going to be a long summer.
— max seddon (@maxseddon) July 24, 2014
This is easily the loudest and longest fire I've heard in Donetsk.
— max seddon (@maxseddon) July 24, 2014
Dutch sending 40 unarmed military police to #MH17 crash site, want to "stabilise area": PM Rutte
— Charles Onians (@charlesonians) July 24, 2014
Gunmen chased investigators from the site where the Malaysian airliner crashed and "lunatics" were still making life difficult for those who wanted to find out what downed flight MH17, officials said on Thursday.
As foreign ministers from Australia and the Netherlands met Ukrainian officials to coordinate the investigation, the head of Ukraine's Emergency Situations Service and the chief of a Dutch police mission said their work at the site was being hampered.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, however, said there had been no incidents, and that they had been joined by experts from Malaysia and Australia, which lost 28 citizens in the crash.
The West has called for a thorough investigation into the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine to get justice for the 298 people who were killed, but have voiced concern that the rebels were preventing investigators from doing their job.
"They took away our tents, the ones which were at our base camp," Serhiy Bochkovsky, the head of the emergencies service, told a news conference in the eastern city of Kharkiv from where the remains of the victims are starting their journey home.
"We were allowed only our equipment and machinery and we were chased away at gunpoint."
He did not say when this happened.
Read the full story here.
U.S. says it has evidence Russian artillery is firing across border to attack Ukrainian military: State Dept.
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) July 24, 2014
A convoy of hearses carry bodies and remains from those killed on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on July 24, 2014 in Boxtel, Netherlands. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Dutch military personnel carry coffins containing the remains of the victims of the MH17 plane crash to a waiting hearse at the airbase in Eindhoven on July 24, 2014. (MARCEL VAN HOORN/AFP/Getty Images)
The Washington Post has an infographic showing information surrounding each of the aircraft that have been shot in Ukraine since May 2.
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) July 24, 2014
Investigators looking into the downing of MalaysiaAirlines flight MH17 have found no evidence that either of the aircraft's two black boxes were tampered with, the Dutch Safety Board, which is coordinating the investigation, said.
In a statement on Thursday, the Board said the data from theBoeing 777's flight data recorder had been successfully downloaded by investigators at Britain's Air Accident Investigation Branch. The other voice recorder was successfully read the day before.
World leaders had expressed concern that the black boxes, which could contain data vital to ascertaining the cause of the crash, may have been manipulated by Moscow-backed rebels who control the territory in which the aircraft crashed last week.
BREAKING: Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk says he is resigning.
— The Associated Press (@AP) July 24, 2014
(Reuters) - Russia will cooperate with the investigation into the downing of a Malaysian airliner a week ago and is satisfied that the Netherlands, rather than Ukraine, is leading the effort, the country's ambassador to Malaysia said on Thursday.
The norm under rules set down by the United Nation's civil aviation body (ICAO) is that an air investigation is led by the state in whose territory the plane crash, but Russia had said that Ukraine should not take charge because the rebels who control the crash site did not trust the authorities in Kiev.
Read the full story here.