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Rebels rule plane crash site

Rebels in eastern Ukraine took control Sunday of the bodies recovered from downed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and the U.S. and European leaders demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin make sure rebels give international investigators full access to the crash site.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Ukraine's separatists were to blame for the downing of the aircraft, adding there was "extraordinary circumstantial evidence" that showed Russia was almost certainly complicit in arming the rebels.

"There's a stacking up of evidence here, which Russia needs to help account for. We are not drawing the final conclusion here. But there is a lot that points at the need for Russia to be responsible," Kerry said on NBC's "Meet the Press" television show.

The key question of who controlled the collection of evidence at the sprawling crash site in rebel-held territory dominated the day's rapid-fire developments. International monitors say armed rebels have limited their access to the crash site and Ukrainian officials said armed rebels took the bodies away from their workers by force.

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.

A wave of international outrage over how the bodies of the plane crash victims were being handled came amid fears that the armed rebels who control the crash site could be tampering with the evidence there.

Donetsk rebel leader Alexander Borodai said the bodies recovered from the crash site would remain in four refrigerated train cars in the rebel-held town of Torez, 15 kilometres (9 miles) from the crash site, until the arrival of an international aviation delegation.

"The bodies will go nowhere until experts arrive," Borodai said, speaking in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.

He also said the plane's black boxes have been recovered and will be handed over to the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Borodai said he was expecting a team of 12 Malaysian experts and that he was disappointed at how long they had taken to arrive. He insisted that rebels had not interfered with the crash investigation, despite reports to the contrary by international monitors and journalists at the crash site.

Ukrainian government officials, meanwhile, prepared a disaster crisis centre in the government-held city of Kharkiv, expecting to receive the bodies, but those hopes appeared delayed or even dashed Sunday.

Deputy prime minister Volodymyr Groysman said 192 bodies and eight body parts were loaded onto the railway cars.

The leaders of France, Germany and Britain issued a statement demanding that Putin make sure that pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine give full access to investigators at the Malaysian plane crash site or risk the ire of Europe.

French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron agreed Sunday to demand that Putin force separatists controlling the site to "finally allow rescuers and investigators to have free and total access to the zone."

A statement from Hollande's office said if Russia fails "to immediately take the needed measures, consequence will be drawn" at an EU foreign ministers meeting Tuesday.

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

The U.S. embassy in Kyiv issued a strong statement Sunday saying it has concluded "that Flight MH17 was likely downed by a SA-11 surface-to-air missile from separatist-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine." It said over the weekend of July 12-13, "Russia sent a convoy of military equipment with up to 150 vehicles, including tanks armoured personnel carriers artillery, and multiple rockets launchers" to the separatists. The statement also said Russia was training separatist fighters in southwest Russia, including on air defence systems.

The Canadian Press

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