Pro-Russian separatists said on Friday they welcomed international and Ukrainian experts coming to the site of the downed Malaysian airliner, denying government reports they were preventing a search and rescue mission.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a security and rights body, later said about 30 of its staff had arrived at the scene by helicopter. Ukrainian officials say the location where the airliner came down in rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine has complicated efforts to determine what caused the crash that killed all 298 people on board. Donetsk's governor, Serhiy Taruta, said the rebels were impeding the work of experts and had declared a desire to transfer the airliner's black boxes to Russia, despite Moscow saying it would not take the flight recorders.
But a rebel leader, Sergei Kavtaradze, told Reuters by telephone: "Today 17 new workers and four official experts from Kiev arrived in Donetsk. Soon they are due to arrive at the site of the tragedy. We support the maximum number of experts possible." A spokesman for the OSCE in Geneva said about 30 of its observers and experts were already at the scene and a "contact group" of diplomats from the OSCE, Russia and Ukraine had met and spoken with separatist leaders by video link earlier.
The black boxes are seen as vital to an investigation into what happened to the Boeing 777, which was downed on Thursday, spreading twisted metal and bodies across fields in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities need to secure the wreckage and recover the black box recordings of flight data and voices from the cockpit to make sure the data is not corrupted. Taruta and the Donetsk authorities said in a statement that the emergency services had found the bodies of 182 people and were searching for more, but were hampered by the rebels.
"They impede the work of international investigators, and hamper the work of Ukrainian specialists at the site of the tragedy," Taruta said. Earlier, local officials were quoted as saying the emergency services had found the airliner's two "black box" flight recorders, but a spokesman for Ukraine's security council said he could not confirm the report.
Ukraine has invited the aviation authorities from Malaysia, the Netherlands, Boeing, the International Civil Aviation Organization, European Civil Aviation Conference, Europe's air traffic regulator Eurocontrol, the European Commission and Ukraine's transport safety watchdog.
(Reporting by Anton Zverev, Writing by Elizabeth Piper, Editing by Peter Graff and Timothy Heritage)