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Ukraine separatists agree to release bodies and black boxes

David M. Herszenhorn, Sabrina Tavernise and Keith BradsherThe New York Times

KIEV, Ukraine -- After days of obstruction, Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine reached an agreement with Malaysia on Monday to surrender the flight recorder boxes of the Malaysia Airlines jetliner downed by a surface-to-air missile last week, and to allow the bodies of the victims to be evacuated by train.

The agreement, announced by the prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, in a live television broadcast, appeared to represent a significant movement to end the standoff after the crash of Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which killed 298 people. The bodies lay for days in a wheat field in eastern Ukraine, an area controlled by the separatists.

The refusal of the separatists to permit unfettered access to the crash site has further raised suspicions that they may have been responsible for the missile strike. The obstruction has also generated enormous international criticism of the Ukrainian separatists and of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Najib, speaking from Kuala Lumpur, said the agreement with Alexander Borodai, a commander of the separatist forces in the city of Donetsk, Ukraine, called for the bodies to be taken by train to Kharkiv, a city held by the Ukrainian government. Six Malaysian representatives were to oversee the transfer of the bodies in Kharkiv to the custody of the Netherlands.

The black boxes were to be handed over in Donetsk as well.

If the separatists honor the agreement, it would be a diplomatic success for Najib, whose government has been reluctant to cast blame for the airline disaster, the second Malaysia has faced in the past four months.

Putin was confronting the threat of new European Union sanctions and new admonishments by President Barack Obama, as suspicions grew that the separatists had downed the plane with a Russian anti-aircraft weapon. Putin and Russian military officials continued to deny that they had anything to do with the disaster and suggested that some of the purported evidence had been fabricated by Ukraine and its Western backers.

Obama, in a televised statement from the White House, said that despite the advances on Monday, the Ukraine separatists continued to obstruct international investigators and that relatives of the 298 victims were in a “state of shock and outrage” over the delays so far in recovering the bodies. Obama said Russia would only “further isolate itself” if it did not act more assertively to rein in the separatists.

At a news briefing in Kiev late Monday afternoon, Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who is leading the Ukrainian government’s response to the jetliner downing, said a train carrying bodies in four refrigerated rail cars from the town of Torez would go to Kharkiv, in northeast Ukraine, outside the rebel-held area. The train departed at 7 p.m. local time for a journey that was expected to take hours.

More than half the victims of the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight were Dutch, and the others came from more than half a dozen countries.

Groysman said that 282 bodies had been found and loaded onto the train, as well as dozens of body parts from as many as 16 other victims, suggesting that officials believed they had recovered most of the remains of the passengers and crew from the Boeing 777. He said that from Kharkiv, the bodies would be flown to Amsterdam, where they would be taken to a laboratory with the latest forensic technology.

European leaders threatened new sanctions on Russia as soon as Tuesday, suggesting they were increasingly open to the harder line being taken against Moscow by the United States, which has accused Russia of providing the surface-to-air missile system that brought down the jetliner, training rebels how to use it, and perhaps even supplying experts who helped fire it.

Putin issued a brief statement early Monday saying that Russia would work to ensure that the conflict in eastern Ukraine moved from the battlefield to the negotiating table. He said that a robust international investigating team must have secure access to the crash site, but also accused unspecified nations of exploiting the disaster in pursuit of “mercenary political goals.”

The Dutch forensic experts, who inspected some of the bodies before they left on the train, were accompanied by representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The OSCE representatives have been conducting an international monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine and had quickly sent observers to the plane wreckage site, where they said their efforts were limited by rebels until Sunday, when they were granted broader access.

As the experts began their work, heavy fighting, including mortar shelling, was underway between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military in the nearby regional capital of Donetsk, a rebel stronghold about 50 miles from the crash site. A spokesman for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Sergei Vladimirovich, said that the government forces had begun pushing into the city from the northwest, near a market by the main train station, and a witness reported seeing heavy shelling in the area including damage at a children’s hospital.

With fighting still raging and access to the crash site still difficult, European leaders maneuvered to overcome longstanding divisions about imposing significantly tighter sanctions against Moscow.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, whose country bore the brunt of the casualties, told parliament that “all political, economic and financial options” were available as the European Union prepared to debate measures further isolating the Russian leader.

“It is clear that Russia must use her influence on the separatists to improve the situation on the ground,” Rutte said, according to Reuters. “If in the coming days access to the disaster area remains inadequate, then all political, economic and financial options are on the table against those who are directly or indirectly responsible for that,” he said.

His words found an echo from George Osborne, the British chancellor of the Exchequer, who said Britain was prepared to tighten sanctions even if that meant losing Russian business in London’s economically vital financial services industry. “Any sanctions will have an economic impact, and we are prepared to undertake further sanctions,” he said in a BBC radio interview.

Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said he told Putin in telephone conversation Sunday that the world expects Russia to use its influence on the separatists to open up the crash site.

His remarks followed a telephone conversation over the weekend between the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, who were reported to have agreed that their countries should be ready to use a meeting of the 28-nation EU’s foreign ministers on Tuesday to introduce tougher sanctions. The comments also came a day after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was warning Putin “for the last time” to stabilize eastern Ukraine and halt the flow of weapons to separatists there. He called their handling of the victims’ remains, which the rebels seized from Ukrainian rescue workers, “grotesque.”

At the United Nations, the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution Monday that “condemns in the strongest terms” the attack that brought down the Malaysian plane, called for an international investigation with the U.N. civil aviation agency and demanded that armed groups at the crash site allow unfettered access. But the resolution carries no threat of enforcement if there is noncompliance.

Putin’s statement did not directly address the allegations that Russia had supplied the weapon system and expertise needed to shoot down the plane. “Russia will do everything it can to shift the conflict in eastern Ukraine from today’s military stage to the stage of discussion at the negotiating table,” Putin said in video statement posted at 1:40 a.m. Monday, suggesting it emerged from a late-night discussion.

Later Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said a briefing that images that purported to show a surface-to-air missile system being driven toward Russia after the downing of the plane were fake, Interfax reported. The Defense Ministry also said that a U.S. satellite was flying over eastern Ukraine at the time of the crash, Interfax reported, and it asked Washington to release the satellite imagery.

The Dutch king, Willem-Alexander, addressed the nation in a televised speech Monday, a first since Flight 17 was shot down. Both he and Rutte, the prime minister, had faced criticism for not reaching out to victims; others said, however, that a slow, detached response is ordinary in Dutch culture.

The king said that the scar from the disaster “will remain and be felt for many years to come.” Rutte, who had been photographed Sunday wearing shorts, on Monday wore a black suit as a sign of mourning as he, the king, and other members of his Cabinet met with about 1,000 family members, relatives and friends of victims in the city of Nieuwegein.

On a day of swirling diplomatic developments, President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, in an interview with CNN, called on the U.S. Congress to designate as terrorist organizations the separatist groups in eastern Ukraine. He also said that if economic sanctions against Russia fail, Ukraine may seek new status as a special non-NATO ally of the United States - a designation held by Israel, Australia and the Philippines.

“It will be an important gesture of solidarity that we are expecting from the entire world,” Poroshenko said. The rebellion in Russia’s east, he said, “is a threat to the whole world.”