DONETSK, Ukraine — After days of resistance, pro-Russian rebels on Monday yielded some ground in the crisis surrounding downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 — handing over passengers’ bodies, relinquishing the plane’s black boxes and pledging broader access for investigators to the crash site.
The developments offered some hope that an international investigation might clarify how the civilian jet carrying 298 passengers and crew members was shot down Thursday in territory held by the separatists in eastern Ukraine. Experts warned, however, that the site had been compromised.
The breakthroughs came after days of international outrage over scenes of bodies decaying in meadows under a hot sun. The U.N. Security Council and world leaders had demanded that the rebels allow professional investigators unfettered access to the site.
Still, underlining the intensity of the broader conflict, combat continued in eastern Ukraine. A rebel leader said he was skeptical about discussions to reach a temporary truce in the fight with the pro-Western government of Ukraine, which would have made it easier for experts to study the crash site.
For its part, the Ukrainian military on Monday pressed an assault near Donetsk’s city center, 40 miles from the area of the crash. Artillery strikes hit targets near the Donetsk railway station and airport, including residential buildings, witnesses said. The government denied aiming at civilian facilities.
The Malaysia Airlines jet, the recovery of passengers’ bodies and the ensuing investigation have all fallen victim to the conflict that has raged since spring between the Ukrainian government and separatist groups that are armed and, in some cases, led by Russians. The Malaysian airliner was struck by a missile that Ukraine, the United States and many other governments believe was fired by separatists, though the rebels and Moscow have denied it and blamed Kiev instead. The rebels had allowed onlookers to roam around the crash site and had limited access to investigators while they dickered with international and Ukrainian authorities seeking to retrieve the bodies and assess evidence.
Early Tuesday, the rebels handed over what they said were the plane’s black boxes. The transfer took place in a ceremony with a Malaysian delegation in the rebel-controlled regional administration building in Donetsk.
Hours earlier, just before nightfall, the train bearing the bodies of the plane victims finally departed the railway station in Torez, near the crash site, heading for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Kharkiv, where the Dutch military had sent coffins. The majority of the passengers on the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur flight — 193 — were from the Netherlands.
The Ukrainian government announced that 282 bodies have been recovered, leaving 16 passengers unaccounted for. The remains are to be taken to the Netherlands, where they will be identified and turned over to families who feared their loved ones had become political pawns. It was unclear whether all the bodies were aboard the five intermittently refrigerated cars on the train.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said it could take as long as 12 hours for the train to make the journey, depending on conditions.
Late Monday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he had reached agreement with Alexander Borodai, a rebel leader, for a Malaysian team to take custody of the two black-box data recorders from rebel fighters who had retrieved them and had previously refused to turn them over. He also said international investigators would be guaranteed safe access to the crash site.
Meanwhile, three Dutch investigators, whose access to the crash site had previously been blocked by the Russian-backed separatists, began gathering evidence Monday.
In an interview with CNN, Borodai insisted the separatists were eager for the bodies to be collected quickly. He said the rebels had been hampered by statements from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that the separatists were responsible for any bodies that were moved.
“It got to the point where it resembled, if not a horror movie, then black humor,” he said. “When an old woman comes to our rebel groups and says: ‘Look, there is a body of a headless man [that] fell through the roof straight onto my bed. Please take this man away.’ But the rebels say no, because they are following instructions.”
Underscoring the antagonism that contributed to the delays, Borodai told reporters in Donetsk that the bodies and the objects that the rebels believed to be the black boxes would be handed over to “foreign experts, but not to the Ukrainian side.”
He said that he was doubtful that talks with the OSCE on a temporary truce with the Ukrainian military would yield fruit.
“I am not very optimistic about this meeting,” he said. “The previous ones had no results.”
Even as final negotiations progressed over the train carrying the bodies, the Ukrainian military attacked the center of Donetsk. Its central train station was partially evacuated for several hours, although trains continued to run and the facility was not damaged, a representative of the station said.
Ukrainian military authorities made no apologies for carrying out a military assault just miles from where a team of international observers was gathering to inspect the scene of the plane crash.
“This is a planned offensive,” said a Ukrainian military spokesman, Vladislav Seleznev. The military is trying to push rebels away from the airport, he said. “Aviation and artillery are not aiming at civilian residences. Their only aim is to block the terrorists and fighters.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that the investigation into the crash would be based in the Netherlands.
In remarks carried by the Ukrainian Interfax news agency, he described the rebels as “barbarians” who murdered 298 innocent people and then looted children’s toys from the luggage that dropped from the sky. He said the rebels had committed three crimes — shooting down the plane, treating the bodies with negligence and disrespect, and tampering with evidence.