KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia issued an impassioned plea Saturday for the MH17 disaster site in Ukraine to be protected from tampering, saying evidence was being compromised in what it called a "betrayal of the lives that were lost."
Concerns are mounting over the integrity of the crash zone in rebel-held eastern Ukraine, with the government in Kiev on Saturday accusing Moscow of helping pro-Russian separatist insurgents destroy evidence.
"Malaysia is deeply concerned that the crash site has not been properly secured," Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai told reporters.
"The integrity of the site has been compromised, and there are indications that vital evidence has not been preserved in place." Ukraine says the rebels shot down the Malaysian Airlines plane Thursday, killing all 298 aboard.
Liow, who leaves for Kiev later Saturday to join Malaysian officials already there in hopes of assisting an investigation, called "for all parties to protect the integrity of the crash site, and to allow the investigation to proceed".
A Ukraine government statement said pro-Russia rebels had removed 38 bodies to a morgue in the insurgent-controlled city of Donetsk where "specialists with clearly Russian accents" were to conduct autopsies.
'Betrayal of the dead'
It also said separatist forces were blocking access to the site for Ukrainian investigators and international observers.
"Terrorists with the support of Russia are trying to destroy proof of this international crime," it said.
An AFP crew at the scene of the crash Saturday said that armed rebels were preventing journalists from accessing the site and shot in the air to warn them back.
"Failure to stop such interference would be a betrayal of the lives that were lost," Liow said.
Malaysia Airlines on Saturday released what it called a final tally of those killed, saying 192 Dutch nationals, 44 Malaysians, and 27 Australians were among the dead.
Smaller numbers of Indonesians, Britons, Germans, Belgians, and other nationalities also were aboard.
A Malaysian team including two air accident investigators arrived in Kiev earlier Saturday, hours after Prime Minister Najib Razak appealed for access to the MH17 crash.
Najib said he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone late Friday to stress that "the site should not be tampered (with)," national news agency Bernama reported.
The United States has said the Boeing 777 was shot down by a missile fired from rebel-held territory, a possible casualty of Ukraine's battle with pro-Russia insurgents.
The disaster has deeply shocked Malaysia, still grappling with the trauma of the unexplained March 8 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 with 239 passengers and crew aboard, including 38 Malaysians.
"Wrong target, who committed this atrocity?" leading Malay-language daily Utusan Malaysia said of MH17 on its front page Saturday, echoing the tone of most leading newspapers and Malaysian social media chatter.
In an address to his nation late Friday, Najib demanded justice if it is determined that the plane was shot down, condemning what he called an "inhumane, uncivilised, violent and irresponsible act".
He said the Muslim-majority country would hold an emergency sitting of parliament - expected Wednesday - to vent Malaysian anger over the disaster, and that all flags in the country would be flown at half-mast.
"Of course there is anger. Why must this happen only to us (in) Malaysia? I really feel like beating that Russian, Vladimir Putin," said Mohamad Shidee Mohamad Ghazali, 28, a welder with the state utility company Tenaga Nasional.
Civil servant Nor Azizah Johar, 31, said her childhood friend Mohamad Ali Mohamad Salim was aboard the flight. They had planned to meet up during the coming Eid al-Fitr Islamic holiday.
"I am shocked that such an incident can happen," she said.
"I leave it to Allah. What can we do? We are just pawns in this issue."
Stunned world leaders have urged a full investigation, which could further fan the flames of Russia's confrontation with Ukraine, the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War, if pro-Russian rebels are found responsible.