Malaysia quietly worked back channels to secure Malaysia Airlines MH17 bodies, black boxes

Jul 22 2014, 22:06 IST
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SummaryAs Western leaders increasingly pointed the finger of blame at pro-Russian separatists, and Moscow itself, over the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines MH17...

As Western leaders increasingly pointed the finger of blame at pro-Russian separatists, and Moscow itself, over the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines MH17 plane in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kuala Lumpur said little.

The reasons for that reticence - which had drawn criticism at home - became clear on Tuesday, when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced shortly after midnight that his government had negotiated the release of the remains of nearly 300 victims of Flight MH17 from separatist-held territory.

Najib, working through intermediaries to reach rebel leader Alexander Borodai, was a key figure in brokering the deal, according to two sources in Malaysia with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

The talks were kept under tight wraps, with Najib initiating the conversation and bringing only a handful of his closest confidants into the discussions.

"It was the Prime Minister's project," one of the sources said.

"He was the main player and he kept this within a very, very, very tight circle. Even some of his closest advisers were not part of this circle, and were surprised by this deal."

The agreement was that Malaysia would receive the aircraft's "black box" voice and flight data recorders, which were in rebel hands after being recovered from the crash site near the Russian border.

The bodies would be moved from separatist-controlled territory so that international investigators could safely conduct DNA tests and later return the remains to families.

Intermediaries, whom the sources declined to identify, facilitated at least one telephone discussion between Najib and Borodai, via a translator, the sources said.

Malaysia wanted three things from the separatists: return the bodies, hand over the black boxes and assure safe access for investigators to the crash site.

Borodai's people wanted a signed document acknowledging that the black boxes were not tampered with, the second source said.

They also insisted on handing over the black boxes to the Malaysians because they did not want the devices in the hands of the Ukrainian government. The voice and data recorders will be crucial for investigators to piece together exactly what brought down the plane as it flew over eastern Ukraine on Thursday en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

As negotiations advanced, Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai, who had been appointed to the job only a few weeks earlier, and other representatives of the airline and government flew to Kiev over the weekend.

A broad agreement took shape on Monday, and Najib broke his silence, telling a small

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