KIEV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian government said on Saturday, that it had proof that Russia had provided the surface-to-air missile system that shot down a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet over eastern Ukraine on Thursday, killing all 298 people aboard.
Ukraine accused Russia and separatist rebels in the east of trying to cover-up their role by blocking recovery workers from the crash site, removing evidence and driving the missile launchers back to Russia just hours after the crash. At a news conference in Kiev, Vitaly Nayda, the head of counterintelligence for the Ukrainian State Security Service, displayed photographs that he said showed three of the Buk-M1 missile systems on the road to the Russian border. Two of the devices, which are missile launchers mounted on an armored vehicle, crossed the border into Russia at about 2 a.m. Friday, or less than 10 hours after the jet, Flight 17, was blown apart in midair, he said. The third weapon crossed at about 4 a.m.
Mr. Nayda said that the missile had been fired from the town of Snizhne, located in rebel-controlled territory, echoing American intelligence showing the missile coming from eastern Ukraine. Both the Ukrainians and the Americans said they believed that the separatist rebels would have needed help from Russia in order to fire the antiaircraft missiles.
Tensions flared on several fronts with reports on Saturday of heavy fighting between rebels and government forces in the eastern city of Luhansk, a reminder that the crash site is in an active combat zone. Meanwhile, the Kremlin announced that it was imposing economic sanctions on 12 Americans in retaliation for a new round of economic sanctions announced last week against Russian companies.
The allegations of a cover-up, both to hide the weaponry in the hours immediately after the missile strike and to stop investigators from collecting evidence, threatened to further inflame an already highly-charged international incident. The Kremlin has forcefully denied any role in the downing of the plane and has said that the Ukrainian military’s antiaircraft weapons may have been responsible. Ukrainian officials accused Russia directly, and called for an international investigation.
“We have proof that the terrorist attack was planned and carried out with the involvement of representatives of the Russian Federation,” Mr. Nayda said. “We know that Russia is trying to hide its terrorist activity and their direct involvement.” While Russian officials have stopped short of pointing a direct finger at Kiev, they have issued their own calls for a thorough international inquiry. In a statement on Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said “appeals to both sides of the Ukrainian conflict, urging them to do everything possible to enable access for international experts to the airplane crash area in order to take action necessary for the investigation.”
In Kiev, officials also said there was still no clear information about the location of the flight data recorders. They were said to be recovered at the scene but then taken by rebels. On Saturday, however, a rebel leader, Alexander Borodai, said that they devices had not yet been found, Ukrainian news services reported.
In Malaysia, where officials are grappling with the tragedy of losing a second major jetliner this year, the government has joined the call for an investigation but is also reluctant to assign blame for the incident. Experts and officials said two concerns shaped the Malaysia government’s wariness: its bruising experience with confusion after the loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 over four months ago, and a desire not to alienate Russia and China, its main partner in east Asia, unless necessary. Still, Malaysian officials strongly denounced the lack of security at the crash site.
At a news conference on Saturday, Liow Tiong Lai, the Malaysian transport minister, said, “we urge all those involved to respect the families, and the nations who have lost their sons and daughters in this attack. Yes, MH17 has become a geopolitical issue, but we must not forget that it is a human tragedy.”
He added, “Days after the plane went down, the remains of 298 people lie uncovered. Citizens of 11 nations — none of whom are involved in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine —cannot be laid to rest.”
Adding to the outrage over the downing of the plane, the Ukrainian government also charged that rebels had moved at least 38 bodies of victims to a morgue in Donetsk, a regional capital and rebel stronghold. Officials had planned to take victims to Kharkiv, a city in the east outside of rebel control, and where they said a special lab would help identify remains.
Underscoring the raw emotion over the handling of the disaster scene, the Netherlands’ foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, who was in Kiev on Saturday, urged that his country be allowed to bring the bodies of victims home to their loved ones “with dignity” and without interference.
“My first priority is to return our people home,” he said after meeting with President Petro O. Poroshenko. “Families want to bury their loved ones,” Mr. Timmermans said, adding that relatives are “angered by what they hear.” By Saturday afternoon, it was not clear who was in charge at the crash site. Journalists were being restricted from entering certain areas, at times by a man in fatigues who occasionally made his point by a firing a gun into the air. He wore a badge from the general prosecutor’s office.
Several tents had been set up as a headquarters, but emergency workers said they did not know who was in charge of plane parts.
Alexander Yakubovsky, an official in the general prosecutor’s office in Donetsk, confirmed rescue workers had removed some bodies but said they were only those that had fallen into homes and courtyards — approximately 30, he said, and they had been taken to the morgue in Donetsk.
Mr. Yakubovsky said that his office had a ‘small team’ of investigators working on the scene but their role was not immediately clear
Mr. Yakubovsky said he could not comment on allegations that rebels have blocked federal investigators from Kiev. Ukraine’s central government, he said, had forbid the office from working at the site and a number of workers had declined to participate in the work.
In Kiev, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council, said that officials believed rebels were blocking access in order to remove missile fragments that would prove that a Russian missile destroyed the plane. He said officials from the state Emergency Services Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the general prosecutor’s office had been denied access, though uniformed regional emergency services workers were actively engaged in collecting bodies on Saturday.
Mr. Borodai, a Russian citizen who is a leader of the separatist movement, has denied that rebels were interfering with the recovery operation. On Saturday afternoon, rescue workers in blue uniforms started to direct the collection of bodies from the fields where they fell, placing them on stretchers and into black body bags. A cluster of about 10 lay in the grass by the road, as men in pairs made their way through the grass, retrieving them.
A supervisor, Aleksei Sergeyevich, who asked that his last name not be published, said that since 6 a.m., workers had gathered 190 bodies, some broken in pieces. He said the recovery area had been increased by more than double, to 35 square kilometers from the initial 15-square kilometer zone, and that 343 workers were participating in the effort, including volunteers and rebels. Monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who were denied access to the site on Friday, had been permitted to enter, a spokesman said.
In Russia on Saturday, the Kremlin announced that President Vladimir V. Putin had spoken by telephone with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, about both the airliner investigation and the need to pursue a cease-fire in southeastern Ukraine.
The two leaders agreed to the need for a “thorough and objective investigation of all the circumstances of the incident,” according to a brief statement on the Kremlin website.
The Russian government maintained that the Ukrainian military could possibly have shot down the aircraft. The deputy minister of defense, Anatoly I. Antonov, called on Ukraine to hand over all the documents related to its surface-to-air missile systems to the international investigators — once such an inquiry was organized.
Appearing on the state-run Rossiya 24 satellite, Mr. Antonov said that the rush to blame Russia or the militiamen in southeastern Ukraine smacked of the “information war” that Ukraine and its Western allies had been waging for months. He said that he wanted to know why the Ukraine military deployed its Russian-made SA-11 Buk antiaircraft system in the east of the country since the insurgents have no air force.
“Are Ukrainian armed forces officials ready to provide international experts with the documents about the number of the air-to-air missiles and surface-to-air missiles that are available for its anti-aircraft-missile systems?” the deputy minister said. “This is a very important question that will allow us to determine what systems were used against the Malaysian Boeing.”
At a news conference in Washington on Friday, Rear Admiral John F. Kirby said that it would have been difficult for the separatists to have fired the SA-11 without Russian help.
The missile “is a sophisticated piece of technology,” said Admiral Kirby, who added that “it strains credulity to think that it could be used by separatists without at least some measure of Russian support and technical assistance.”
Admiral Kirby also raised the possibility that the Russian military have driven the SA-11 system into Ukraine and even fired it.
“It was a surface-to-air missile, an SA-11, fired from a location controlled by Russian separatists near the border,” he said. “Whether it was a Russian military unit that did it or it was a separatist unit that did it, we don’t know.”