Pro-Russian Separatists Destroying Evidence of Plane Shootdown

As now seems likely, Moscow-backed separatists launched the missile that shot down a Malaysia airlines passenger plane flying near the Russian border.

Within minutes of the shootdown, rebels were on social media gloating about shooting down a Ukrainian cargo plane. But that posting, along with other damning evidence on Facebook and other sites, have been scrubbed by the rebels as they seek to cover up their involvement in the attack.

On Friday, the separatists blocked international monitors from the crash site, threatening members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and even firing shots to force them back. On Saturday, AP is reporting that the monitors got limited access, but that security was very tight.

Bociurkiw said the 24-member monitoring delegation was given some access Saturday to the crash site but their movements were being limited by the rebels. The site sprawls across sunflower and wheat fields between two villages in eastern Ukraine, encompassing eight square miles (20 square kilometers).

"We have to be very careful with our movements because of all the security," Bociurkiw said. "We are unarmed civilians, so we are not in a position to argue with people with heavy arms."

At issue for the monitors was the attempt by separatists, with the possible assistance of Russians, to remove evidence from the crash site:

The government in Kiev said militiamen have removed 38 bodies from the crash site and have taken them to the rebel-held city of Donetsk. It said the bodies were transported with the assistance of specialists with distinct Russian accents.

The rebels are also "seeking large transports to carry away plane fragments to Russia," the Ukrainian government said in a statement.

In Donetsk, separatist leader Alexander Borodai denied that any bodies had been transferred or that the rebels had in any way interfered with the work of observers. He said he encouraged the international community to help with the cleanup before the bodies decay further.

As emergency workers loaded about 80 bodies of plane victims into bags Saturday, Bociurkiw stressed that his team was not at the site to conduct a full-scale investigation.

"We are looking at security on the perimeter of the crash site, looking at the status in the condition of the bodies, the status in the condition of the debris, and also personal belongings," he said.

One passenger's body was seen still strapped into an airline seat, with bare toes peeking out under long jeans. Another body was flung face-up into a field of blue flowers.

Ukraine also urged Moscow to insist that the pro-Russia rebels grant international experts the ability to conduct a thorough, impartial investigation into the downing of the plane - echoing a demand that President Barack Obama issued a day earlier from Washington.

"The integrity of the site has been compromised, and there are indications that vital evidence has not been preserved in place," Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur.

He called for immediate access for Malaysia's team at the site to retrieve human remains.

The Guardian is reporting that there has been other efforts to destroy or remove evidence from the site:

There is also confusion over the black boxes and other devices apparently salvaged from the plane. A rebel military commander initially said he was considering what to do with them, while another rebel leader, Aleksandr Borodai, contradicting his colleague, said the rebels had no black boxes or any other devices.

The Ukrainian interior ministry added to fears of a cover-up when it released video purportedly taken by police showing a truck carrying a Buk missile launcher with one of its four missiles apparently missing, rolling towards the Russian border at dawn . The video could not be independently verified.

Other material on rebel social media sites was being deleted, including pictures showing the alleged capture of Buk missile vehicles by rebels from a Ukrainian air base last month.

Perhaps the most troublesome question that needs to be answered is did Russian technicians assist the rebels in launching the missile?

Defence analysts with Russian expertise shared Power's scepticism that Russia-backed rebel groups would have had the expertise to fire the missile and suggested it was more likely to have been Russian ground troops who specialise in air defence, seconded to help the rebels.

At the Pentagon, officials said a motive for the operation had yet to be determined, as had the chain of command. One said it would be "surprising to us" if pro-Russia separatists were able to operate the Buk missile battery without Russian technical support. The Ukrainian military confirmed it has Buk batteries but said it had none in the area the missile was fired.

It would seem unlikely that militiamen would be capable of handling a sophisticated surface to air missile system by themselves. If it's true that Russian technicians aided the separatists, then Russia bears equal responsibility for this war crime -- something that would ratchet up the tension between Moscow and the US and could lead to crippling sanctions against Russia.

Is Putin able to control the separatists? He is still supplying them with arms, but it's unclear how many local commanders are actually taking orders from Moscow. Whatever influence he possesses, he better use it now. If the shootdown did anything to the war, it placed the west even more firmly on Ukraine's side and isolated Russia even more than they were. The prospect that the next round of sanctions may hit the already weakened Russian economy should galvanize Putin into forcing the rebels to the negotiating table.