By Anton Zverev and Matt Spetalnick
HRABOVE, Ukraine/WASHINGTON, July 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid out what he called overwhelming evidence of Russian complicity in the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 as international horror deepened over the fate of the victims' remains.
Kerry demanded that Moscow take responsibility for actions of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine whom Washington suspects of downing the jet with a missile, and expressed disgust at their "grotesque" mishandling of the bodies.
Television images of the rebel-held crash sites, where the remains of victims had lain decomposing in fields among their personal belongings, have turned initial shock and sorrow after Thursday's disaster into anger.
Emotions ran high in the Netherlands, the home country of about two-thirds of the 298 people who died in the Boeing 777. The Dutch foreign minister has said the nation is "furious" to hear bodies were being "dragged around", while relatives and church leaders demanded they be rapidly returned home.
But the departure of dozens of corpses loaded into refrigerated railway wagons was delayed on Sunday as Ukrainian officials and rebels traded blame over why the train had not yet left the war zone, and where or when international investigators would be able to check it.
The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to vote on Monday on a resolution that would condemn the downing of the plane and demands that those responsible be held accountable and that armed groups not compromise the integrity of the crash site.
In an apparent bid to compromise with Moscow, the wording of the resolution, drafted by Australia, was changed to characterize the incident as the "downing" of the flight, instead of "shooting down," according to the final draft obtained by Reuters. Diplomats said it was unclear if Russia would support the final version.
In Washington, Kerry criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin and threatened "additional steps" against Moscow.
"Drunken separatists have been piling bodies into trucks and removing them from the site," he said on NBC television on Sunday. "What's happening is really grotesque and it is contrary to everything President Putin and Russia said they would do."
Moscow denies any involvement in the disaster and has blamed the Ukrainian military. While stopping short of direct blame on Moscow, Kerry put forward the most detailed U.S. accusations so far, based on the latest U.S. intelligence assessments.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond urged Moscow to ensure international investigators had access to the crash sites. "Russia risks becoming a pariah state if it does not behave properly," he told Sky television.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he had spoken "overnight" to Putin for the first time about the disaster, amid mounting horror over the treatment of victims' remains. At least 27 Australian passengers were on the Malaysia Airlines flight.
Abbott said an Australian investigation team was in Kiev but had been unable to travel to the site. He said there had been some improvement with the Ukrainian government offering access.
"But there's still a hell of a long way to go before anyone could be satisfied with the way that site is being treated," Abbott said. "It's more like a garden cleanup than a forensic investigation. This is completely unacceptable."
After lying for two days in the summer heat, the bodies had been removed from much of the crash site by Sunday, leaving only bloodstained military stretchers along the side of the road.
Emergency workers, who have to navigate reporting both to the authorities in Kiev and the rebels who control the crash site and other areas in the Donetsk region, will now need to pick through the debris spread across the Ukrainian steppe.
As Ukraine accused the rebels of hiding evidence relating to the loss of the airliner, a separatist leader said items thought to be the stricken jet's "black boxes" were now in rebel hands.
Investigators from the U.N. aviation agency arrived in Ukraine to help probe the crash, but a senior official said safety concerns prevented them from reaching the crash site.
"Until safe passage for them is assured, we don't send people into that kind of situation," said the official with the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization.
Kerry said the United States had seen supplies moving into Ukraine from Russia in the last month, including a 150-vehicle convoy of armored personnel carriers, tanks and rocket launchers given to the separatists.
It had also intercepted conversations about the transfer to separatists of the Russian radar-guided SA-11 missile system, which it blames for the Boeing 777's destruction. "It's pretty clear that this is a system that was transferred from Russia," Kerry said in an interview on CNN.
"There's enormous amount of evidence, even more evidence that I just documented, that points to the involvement of Russia in providing these systems, training the people on them," he said on CBS.
Kerry's evidence of a Russian connection tracked closely with an official unclassified U.S. intelligence summary released over the weekend. It said intelligence analysts confirmed the authenticity of an audiotaped conversation provided to the press by Ukrainian authorities of a known separatist leader boasting of downing the plane.
"We also have information indicating that Russia is providing training to separatist fighters at a facility in southwest Russia" that includes missile systems, it said.
The disaster has sharply deepened the Ukrainian crisis in which the separatists in the Russian-speaking east have been fighting government forces since protesters in Kiev forced out a pro-Moscow president and Russia annexed Crimea in March.
The United States has already imposed sanctions on individuals and businesses close to Putin but Kerry indicated that President Barack Obama might go further. "The president is prepared to take additional steps," he told Fox News, although he ruled out sending in U.S. troops.
European Union ministers should be ready to announce a fresh round of sanctions at a meeting of the EU's Foreign Affairs Council this week, said a statement from British Prime Minister David Cameron's office, issued after telephone calls with French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"They ... agreed that the EU must reconsider its approach to Russia and that foreign ministers should be ready to impose further sanctions on Russia when they meet on Tuesday," it said.
The leaders also agreed to press Putin to ensure investigators had free access to the crash site.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said all efforts were focusing on getting the train loaded with bodies to territory controlled by the Ukrainian authorities.
The European security organization, the OSCE, was negotiating with the separatists, he said, adding that a team of victim identification specialists was likely to enter the crash site on Monday.
While Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko issued a renewed appeal for backing from the international community, some European nations, with an eye to their trade links with Russia, have been less enthusiastic about confronting Moscow.
Kerry challenged the Europeans to be more assertive. "It would help enormously if some countries in Europe that have been a little reluctant to move would now recognize this wakeup call and join the United States and President Obama in taking the lead, and also stepping up," he said.
A spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council, Andriy Lysenko, accused the rebels of a cover-up. "The terrorists are doing everything to hide the evidence of the involvement of Russian missiles in the shooting down of that airliner," he told a news conference in Kiev.
He said the rebels had taken debris and bodies from the crash site in trucks, tampering with a scene that investigators need to be secure to have a chance of determining what and who caused the plane to plunge into the steppe.
OSCE observers visited part of the crash site for a third day on Sunday. Just before their arrival, emergency workers found parts of three more bodies and put them in black body bags on the side of a road.
At the site where the cockpit fell, in a field of sunflowers near the village of Razsypnoye, residents had made a small memorial shrine of flowers, candles in tiny jars and brightly colored teddy bears.
Photocopied pictures of children and families killed in the disaster, apparently from news coverage of the victims, had been set out on the grass.
All bodies, including that of a woman who had lain naked under a tarp about 50 meters away, had been removed.
"There were five or six over here, and two or three over there," said a young man with a rifle guarding the site, who declined to give his name. "They took the bodies away to the morgue. Firstly, they were decomposing. And secondly, the smell was horrible." (Additional reporting by Peter Graff in Hrabove, Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets and Elizabeth Piper in Kiev, Jim Loney, Doina Chiacu, Ayesha Rascoe and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Allison Lampert in Montreal, Lincoln Feast and Jane Wardell in Sydney, William James in London and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Writing by Giles Elgood and David Stamp; Editing by Tom Heneghan, Peter Cooney and Eric Walsh)
BEFORE YOU GO
07/25/2014 11:29 PM EDT
Document: EU Extends Russia Sanctions
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.
07/25/2014 5:21 PM EDT
AP Journalists Saw Rebels With BUK Missiles Hours Before MH17 Crashed
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.
07/25/2014 2:59 PM EDT
White House: Russia 'Culpable' For Downed Jet
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.
07/25/2014 1:54 PM EDT
Ukrainian Security Release Tape Of Rebels Allegedly Discussing MH17
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.
07/25/2014 1:14 PM EDT
Russia Accuses U.S. Of 'Smear Campaign' Over Ukraine
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
07/25/2014 1:06 PM EDT
U.S. Ambassador: 15,000 Russian Troops At Border
#BREAKING: More than 15,000 Russian troops amassed along border with Ukraine: U.S. ambassador to NATO— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) July 25, 2014
07/25/2014 12:58 PM EDT
More On The Remarks Out Of The Pentagon
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.
07/25/2014 12:45 PM EDT
Pentagon Says Russia Is Readying Weapons For Transfer To Ukraine Rebels
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
07/25/2014 11:34 AM EDT
Australia To Send 100 Additional Police and Personnel To Secure Crash Site
(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.
07/25/2014 11:03 AM EDT
Russian Newspaper Runs Front Page Apology For MH17
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.