July 20, 2014 6:28 am

Rebels move bodies of 196 MH17 crash victims to rebel-held town

WATCH ABOVE: (Jul. 19, 2014) The Russian-backed rebels say they’re not interfering with anything. For the families of the dead, the pain is gut-wrenching. Mike Armstrong reports.

HRABOVE, Ukraine – Armed rebels forced emergency workers to hand over all 196 bodies recovered from the Malaysia Airlines crash site and then had them loaded onto refrigerated train cars bound for a rebel-held city, Ukrainian officials and monitors said Sunday.

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The surprising, rapid-fire developments Sunday morning came after a wave of international outrage over how the bodies of plane crash victims were being handled and amid fears that the armed rebels who control the territory where the plane came down were tampering with the evidence.

READ MORE: Canada demands pro-Russian militants leave MH17 crash site

Ukraine and the separatists accuse each other of firing a surface-to-air missile Thursday at Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur some 33,000 feet (10,000 metres) above the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. Both deny shooting down the plane. All those onboard the flight – 283 passengers and 15 crew – were killed.

Ukraine says Russia has been sending sophisticated arms to the rebels, a charge that Moscow denies.

The rebels have been strictly limiting the movements of international monitors and journalists at the crash site, which is near the Russian border, and Ukraine’s Emergency Ministry said its workers were labouring under duress, overseen by the armed rebels.

Associated Press journalists saw reeking bodies baking in the summer heat Saturday, piled into body bags by the side of the road or still sprawled where they landed in the verdant farmland in eastern Ukraine after their plane was shot out of the sky.

By Sunday morning, AP journalists saw no bodies and no armed rebels at the crash site. Emergency workers were searching the sprawling fields only for body parts.

Global News correspondent Mike Armstrong tweeted that several refrigerated cars at the local train station did not appear to be running and that the train was unguarded.

It was not immediately clear Sunday if the rebels and the Ukrainian government were working together or at odds with each other on recovering the bodies – and from their comments, many of officials didn’t appear to know either. Separatists were not immediately available to comment.

Nataliya Khuruzhaya, a duty officer at the train station in Torez, 15 kilometres  from the crash site, said she saw emergency workers loading plane victims’ bodies Sunday morning into five sealed, refrigerated train cars.

She said the train was scheduled to head to the town of Ilovaysk, 35 kilometres further east toward the Russian border, but no instructions had been given about when it would leave or any possible destinations beyond Ilovaysk.

Russian news agencies said the bodies were heading to the rebel stronghold of Donetsk. Ukrainian officials say they expected to have the bodies eventually delivered to government-held city of Kharkiv, but it’s unclear if the rebels will agree to do so.

The deputy of governor of the Kharkiv region, where the Ukrainian government has set up a crisis centre to co-ordinate its response to the disaster, said the Ukrainian state railway company had provided the refrigerated train cars.

Earlier in the day, Ukrainian Emergency Ministry spokeswoman Nataliya Bystro said workers at the crash site were forced to hand over the 196 bodies they had recovered to the armed gunmen who controlled the territory.

“Where they took the bodies – we don’t know,” Bystro told The Associated Press, adding she had no information either about the other 102 victims’ bodies.

Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said some bodies have likely been incinerated without a trace.

“We’re looking at the field where the engines have come down. This was the area which was exposed to the most intense heat. We do not see any bodies here. It appears that some have been vaporized,” he told reporters in Kyiv, speaking via phone from the crash site.

Alexander Pilyushny, an emergency worker combing the crash site for body parts Sunday morning, told the AP it took the rebels several hours cart away the bodies on Saturday. He said he and other workers had no choice but to hand over the bodies.

“They are armed and we are not,” Pilyushny said.

“The militiamen came, put the bodies onto the trucks and took them away somewhere.”

Despite the restrictions seen by journalists and observers at the crash site, separatist leader Alexander Borodai insisted Saturday the rebels have not in any way interfered with the work of observers.

The U.S. has pointed blame for downing the plane at the separatists, saying Washington believes the jetliner was probably downed by an SA-11 missile from rebel-held territory and “we cannot rule out technical assistance from Russian personnel.”

An Associated Press journalist saw a Buk missile launcher in rebel-held territory close to the crash site Thursday just hours before the plane was brought down.

The latest U.S. intelligence assessment suggests that more than one missile system was given to the separatists by the Russians in the last week or so. But both Russia and the rebels vehemently deny any role in downing the plane.

In a blistering article for the Sunday Times, British Prime Minister David Cameron called the attack a “direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias and training and arming them.”

“We must turn this moment of outrage into a moment of action,” he wrote.

In a coded rebuke of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders who have blocked efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Cameron said Europe must now “respond robustly.”

“For too long, there has been a reluctance on the part of too many European countries to face up to the implications of what is happening in eastern Ukraine,” Cameron wrote.

WATCH: CBS News reports on investigators’ trouble accessing Malaysia plane crash site in Ukraine.

Despite calls by world leaders for an independent, international investigation into the plane’s downing, armed separatists limited observers’ access to the crash site for the first few days.

The U.S. State Department described the rebels’ refusal to give monitors a full access to the site “an affront to all those who lost loved ones and to the dignity the victims deserve.”

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told the Ukrainian president in Kyiv on Saturday that people in his country were shocked by reports of the bodies being dragged around the crash site.

“People are angry, are furious at what they hear,” Timmermans said, demanding that the culprits be found. “Once we have the proof, we will not stop until the people are brought to justice.”

Putin and Merkel agreed Saturday in a phone call that an independent commission led by the International Civil Aviation Organization should be granted swift access to the crash site.

Peter Leonard in Kyiv; Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow; Nicholas Garriga in Hrabove, Ukraine and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

© The Associated Press, 2014

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