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Did Russia destroy key evidence from the MH17 crash site in Ukraine?

July 19, 2014 at 7:02 PM EDT
Ukraine accused Russia and pro-Russian separatists today of destroying evidence that could offer clues about the downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane that went down in Ukraine earlier this week.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Good evening thanks for joining us. Ukraine today, accused Russia and pro-Russian separatists of destroying evidence that could offer clues about the downing of that Malaysia Airlines plane, carrying 298 people. The plane went down Thursday in an area of eastern Ukraine where the separatists have been battling Ukrainian government forces.

For more about all of this we are joined now via Skype from Ukraine by Paul Sonne. He is the Moscow correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Earlier today, he visited the disaster scene and posted these pictures on Twitter. So Paul, is the site secure and who is in control of it?

PAUL SONNE: It depends what you mean by secure. The rebels are in control of the site. It is in a territory that’s about an hour and a half northeast of the city of Donetsk. That is, it is in possession of the separatists. And they are sort of on site, so they have been standing with guns in the middle of the road that goes right through the field where most of the debris has fallen when I saw them. But from what I could ascertain there was no perimeter around the actual site.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Did you see any indications of an investigation taking place is there evidence being gathered? Do we know anything about the black boxes?

PAUL SONNE: We do not know where the black boxes are. There has been lots of rumors about that. Initially some separatists told Russian news sources that some of them had been recovered. The separatists leader in Donetsk today, Alexander Borodai, said that they had not recovered them. So in terms of the investigation, I didn’t see any suggestion that any sort of investigation was going on today. The only thing that happened today that was new was that they did start retrieving some of the bodies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So Ukrainian intelligence officials said today that they have pictures of some of these anti-aircraft missile launchers on trucks moving back into Russia and that’s just ten hours after the planes went down. They say that that is the direct link that Russia was supplying these missiles in the first place. Has Russia responded to any of this?

PAUL SONNE: Russia has said that they want a full, impartial, objective investigation into what has happened. Though Vladimir Putin has blamed Ukraine for the accident, but he hasn’t blamed Ukraine for shooting down the plane. It’s a very careful difference there. What he said is, you know, Ukraine created the situation essentially where something like this could happen by invading the eastern part of their own country to put down the separatist rebellion, and he said, you know, by deciding to use force and deploy troops inside their own country, that they’ve created a situation wherein this could happen. So that’s basically the Russian line at this point.

In terms of the pictures that the Ukrainian Security Services have put out, I think the line, not just from Russia but from a lot of countries, is that they want an international, objective investigation into that, not sort of people posting photos on a website.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what does the Ukrainian government say is evidence that Russia or the pro-Russian separatists have destroyed?

PAUL SONNE: You know, they didn’t specify, as far as I know, exactly what evidence. They just said that they seem to know that the evidence had been destroyed. You know, when I was there I didn’t see any signs of looting of evidence. Obviously, I was not there for the whole time, I didn’t see the whole perimeter, so it’s obviously very hard to tell. But you know certainly the evidence would have been damaged regardless because of the fact that it has been left without a secure perimeter for so long, in the heat.

It does seem like some of the evidence has been moved. When I was there, there were a lot of personal effects in two different piles. So it does seem like some stuff has been moved already at the scene. And certainly they’re moving stuff in order to take out the bodies. And the investigation doesn’t seem to be already occurring simultaneous to them taking out the bodies. So in terms of already this site being jeopardized for an investigation and the evidence being spoiled, regardless of whether it’s actually physically been taken, that probably already is the case.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Paul Sonne of the Wall Street Journal joining us via Skype from Ukraine, thanks so much.

PAUL SONNE: Thanks for having me.