Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has struck a breakthrough deal with Ukrainian separatists to return the remains of those onboard crashed flight MH17 to the Netherlands.
The Malaysian premier said he had received assurances from the prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, that the remains of 282 people will be moved by train to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and handed over.
He also added that the two black boxes will be given to a Malaysian team, and that independent international investigators would “be guaranteed safe access” to the crash site to begin their probe.
The doomed flight came down on Thursday in a region controlled by Ukrainian separatists and access to the crash site has been hampered by armed militants.
“We need to know what caused the plane to crash, and who was responsible for it, so that justice may be done,” Najib said in a televised press statement.
He added Malaysia had been working “behind the scenes to establish contact with those in charge of the MH17 crash site”.
“That contact has now been made… Tonight, we have established the basis of an agreement,” Najib said, adding that he had earlier spoken to Borodai.
Under the agreement, six Malaysian members of the recovery team will accompany the train carrying the victims’ remains, which would leave this evening Ukraine time, Najib said.
Close to the time of Najib’s announcement, footage emerged of the train carrying the bodies pulling out of Torez station in eastern Ukraine.
The remains will then be flown to Amsterdam on board a Dutch C130 Hercules, accompanied by the Malaysian team, Najib added.
The remains of victims would be repatriated after “any necessary forensic work”.
Under the deal, the two black boxes will be handed over to the Malaysian team, Najib said, adding that he urged “all parties (to) continue to work together to ensure that this agreement is honoured”.
“I must stress that although agreement has been reached, there remain a number of steps required before it is completed,” he said.
Earlier, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said the “bloody guerrillas” weren’t allowing the train to leave the station at Torez.
“We are ready to transfer all the bodies directly to Amsterdam as one of the best well-equipped forensic laboratories is located in Amsterdam,” the prime minister told reporters in Kiev.
The Netherlands – which lost almost 200 people on Malaysia Airlines flight 17 – will lead the investigation working with the international community and Ukrainian authorities.
Thirty-one international experts have flown to Kharkiv in Ukraine’s northeast, including “three representatives of the Australian embassy”.
There are also 23 Dutch experts, two from Germany, two from the US and one from Britain.
Mr Yatsenyuk said they were heading to the crash site but when they arrived would depend on the security situation.
“We need to secure the area and provide the humanitarian corridor to get them to the crash site.”
Kharkiv is closer to the crash site than Kiev, but still within Kiev-controlled territory. It’s where an international co-ordination centre is being established.
News of the planned transfer of the bodies to Amsterdam came as fresh fighting broke out in the rebel-held city of Donetsk near the crash site.
But Mr Yatsenyuk said “there is no indication of any kind of military activity or counter terrorist operation at the area of the crash site” itself.
“We do understand our responsibility because the key priority is to collect all the evidence and have a thorough investigation,” he said.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says the Australian government is committed to returning the bodies of the victims to their families.
“This is not a time to use bodies as hostages or pawns in a Ukrainian-Russian conflict,” she told reporters in Washington.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr Abbott told reporters Mr Putin “said all the right things” in regard to access to the site and would be held to his word.
Retired air chief marshal Angus Houston is in Ukraine leading a 45-strong Australian team which includes 20 foreign affairs staff, 20 Australian Federal Police officers, two Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigators and three Defence officials.