A SECRET deal by Prime Minister Najib Razak to secure the release of the remains of passengers of downed Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH17 ended successfully yesterday, accomplishing what days of intense international pressure by global leaders failed to do.
A train carrying nearly 300 bodies reached the Kiev-controlled city of Kharkiv in the evening, hours after the plane's two black boxes - one containing the flight data recorder and the other the cockpit voice recorder - were handed over to Malaysian officials.
The breakthrough came five days after the jet was purportedly hit by an anti-aircraft missile over war-torn eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
"These were extraordinary circumstances which called for extraordinary measures. There were risks involved in pursuing this agreement," said Datuk Seri Najib yesterday without giving further details about the risks or the terms of the deal.
A report by Reuters yesterday said the separatists made two demands: one, for a signed document to say the black boxes were not tampered with, and two, that the recorders not be handed over to the Ukrainian government.
The agreement surprised many people when it was announced just after midnight on Monday.
Many top officers in the Prime Minister's Office and the Malaysian Foreign Ministry were not aware of it as it was a closely-held secret.
Some had earlier wondered why the 60-year-old premier was guarded for days in his response to the crisis. He disclosed on Monday night that he held his anger in check so as to "work quietly in the service of a better outcome".
Mr Najib was won praise for the breakthrough, even from opposition figures in Malaysia. "The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, is to be commended for the breakthrough," said veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang.
News pictures flashed around the world showed rebel commanders handing over the two black boxes and exchanging documents with Malaysian officials in Donetsk, the largest city of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic.
In perhaps an indirect response to critics that he negotiated with "terrorists" - a term used by the Ukraine government to describe the separatists - Mr Najib said yesterday: "We felt an obligation to explore all avenues to break the impasse and secure the return of the remains and the black boxes.
"After meeting the families, I felt that we owed it to them to act."