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How Crash Could Change The Ukraine-Russia Conflict


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Outrage continues to grow this weekend over the downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane over Ukraine on Thursday. Much of the evidence points toward pro-Russian separatists firing a Russian-made missile. President Obama yesterday called the deaths an outrage of unspeakable proportions and calls are mounting for the pro-Russian paramilitary groups to control the crash site to allow foreign inspectors secure access so they can collect evidence and begin an investigation. David Herszenhorn is a New York Times reporter. He joins us from Kiev. David, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID HERSZENHORN: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: I gather the governor of Ukraine now accuses Russia of helping rebels to destroy evidence at the crash site. What did they say? What's their evidence?

HERSZENHORN: Well, as you say, there's an extraordinary amount of outrage and that seems likely to soon turn to disbelief as folks sense that there's politics being played even with the bodies of the victims of this awful jet crash. What the Ukrainian government is saying is that the separatist rebels, who control the site, are not giving access to emergency recovery workers. They're blocking access. They're removing evidence. They've apparently removed a number of bodies to a morgue in Donetsk, one of the regional capitals.

SIMON: But let me understand this. There's - the international inspectors have gotten no access? Limited access? How would you characterize it?

HERSZENHORN: And again, I'm not on the site. But it appears that they've had limited access where they've been able to get to the scene and look around. But they're not being allowed to remove victims' bodies or to take away evidence. There was a dispute that began yesterday over the flight recorders - the so-called black boxes. The government of Ukraine initially said that its emergency services ministry had found those boxes and removed them from the wreckage. But then one of the rebel commanders, Alexander Borodai, a Russian citizen who's one of the leaders of the so-called People's Republic, said that those boxes were in the possessions of the rebels and that they wanted to decide where they would be taken.

SIMON: A lot of people around the world have had - have heard the recordings of these intercepts that the Ukrainian government provided in which they say separatists are overheard talking about bringing down the plane. Have they been widely heard throughout Kiev? What are the different - how is it - forgive me for bringing this word into it - but how is it being spun?

HERSZENHORN: Well, the government of Kiev has played those audio recordings as made by their intelligence services for news reporters here in Kiev. Certainly, they are joining President Obama in saying that the most likely scenario of what happened is that this plane was shot-down with a missile - surface-to-air missile by the pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine. Now, of course, that's disputed by the rebels themselves, who say they were not a part of this - by the Russian government, who said that Ukraine's air-defense mechanisms could have been responsible for this tragedy. But certainly, the growing body of evidence seems to be pointing towards the rebels having fired a missile at this plane, perhaps mistakenly believing it to be a Ukrainian military aircraft.

SIMON: David, I gather you're ordinarily based in Moscow, right? What kind of attention is the story getting there? Do you know?

HERSZENHORN: There is no question that there's intense attention in Moscow as well. But of course the Russian government has been very careful throughout the Ukraine crisis to make sure that its views are reflected on television, which is largely state-controlled. We have seen reports of Russian citizens, however, leaving flowers and condolence notes outside the Dutch Embassy in Moscow.

SIMON: What kind of sense do you get there in Kiev from the number of people you talk to that this catastrophe could bring the war that's been going on to an end more quickly or perhaps might it even intensify and get aggravated by?

HERSZENHORN: Well, I think what we're seeing in these initial hours after the disaster is that in fact that this is an active combat zone and this dispute is not resolving quickly as a result of the airline tragedy. In fact, it remains an active combat zone. There's reportedly heavy fighting going on in the city of Lugansk today - five government soldiers killed bombing in the center of the city. It doesn't seem to have been a change despite all the outrage and heart break over the loss of a civilian aircraft.

SIMON: David Herszenhorn of the New York Times speaking with us from Kiev. Thanks very much.

HERSZENHORN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.