At Crash Site In Ukraine, Rebels Restrict International Monitors

Separatist rebels at the site of the shot down Malaysia Airlines jet in Eastern Ukraine have been giving restricted access to international monitors Saturday. Corey Flintoff speaks with NPR's Kelly McEvers from Donetsk on the effort and the outcry over the slow pace of the body recovery and evidence gathering.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers in for Arun Rath. We're going to begin our show today in Eastern Ukraine where international observers say they're still having trouble gaining access to the Malaysian Airlines crash site. They say the recovery of bodies is proceeding slowly and haphazardly and there are fears that vital evidence might be lost or destroyed. Ukraine's president has asked the United Nations to label the separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine as terrorist organizations. Further dampening hopes, the two sides might enter into peace negotiations. NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us now from the rebel held city of Donetsk. Corey, I understand you've just gotten back from a press conference held by the observer mission from the Organization For Security And Cooperation In Europe, what are they saying about the situation?

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Well, the observers stress that they're not the experts or investigators who will need to be examining this crash site but at this point all they're able to do is just observe how the site is being handled by the rebels. And Michael Bociurkiw, he's a spokesman for the group, gave an idea of how frustrating this past couple days must've been for the observers. He said that today, for instance, they got a bit more access to the scene but they were only able to work for about three hours and even with that short amount of time though he said the observer saw signs that the site may have been tampered with. Here are a couple of issues that he brought up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL BOCIURKIW: Now, it's very difficult in a short amount of time to observe the movement of debris but it is our belief that some of the debris seem to have been moved, we're not quite sure why. There also seems to be a lack of a leadership structure among the rebels who are holding sway over this piece of land. One of the crucial questions of course is the fate of the black boxes - we were unable today, for the second day, to gain and the answers to that question. We will be asked again those questions tomorrow.

MCEVERS: Now, Cory, did the observers also talk about the status of peoples' remains, are they being recovered and if so how are they being treated?

FLINTOFF: Bociurkiw said that his group observed some 55 bodies that had been put in body bags and laid along the side of the road. He said some of those bags were left open they were exposed to the elements and it wasn't clear why. There's also some question as to whether these bodies have been - or some of these bodies have been removed from the site and if so where they are.

MCEVERS: You said earlier these O.S.C.E. observers are not the experts who will actually be investigating the crash, who will do that and why aren't they at the scene?

FLINTOFF: The O.S.C.E. spokesman said that there are experts, some from the Netherlands and some from Malaysia, who've already arrived in Ukraine but that they're still in Kiev and that it's going to take some negotiation to get them safely through those checkpoints and onto the site. So that may still make some time and of course the longer it takes the more chance there is that some evidence might be lost.

MCEVERS: One of the reasons it's taken time to get in there is that this is an active, you know, war zone. Does it seem that there's any kind of informal cease-fire that might take hold?

FLINTOFF: There's been talk of a cease-fire but as I was traveling into the area today the O.S.C.E. observers said they heard the sounds of fighting in the distance while they were at the crash site. And there were reports of quite heavy fighting near Lugansk yesterday. You know, both the United States and Russia have been calling for peace talks but, as you mentioned earlier, President Poroshenko is asking the U.N. to declare these rebels to be terrorists so the chances of peace talks in pretty remote right now.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Corey Flintoff in Donetsk

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