MH17 crash: Rescuers gather dead at crash site under rebel watch

GRABOVE, Ukraine - The stench of death is now becoming almost unbearable over the wreckage of the stolen lives where Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 came down in eastern Ukraine.

Two days after the passenger jet was apparently shot down in rebel-held territory, spraying debris and body parts for kilometres around, the focus of emergency workers and international monitors at the scene is for the remains of the 298 victims to be collected.

After lying for hours under the summer sun the bodies of some are already becoming black and bloated.

Firemen in blue uniforms pull on their gloves as they set off through fields of wheat to where makeshift markers show the location of another corpse.

There they start packing the remains of another victim into a large black body bag before carrying them away on a stretcher to a waiting bus.

All of this is being done under the watchful eyes of armed pro-Russian rebels who closely control the access to the crash site deep in their territory and fire a warning shot into the air to push journalists back.

"We are securing the zone as the experts are working there. It is standard procedure at this sort of site," the rebel commander in charge of security at the site told AFP, refusing to give his name.

From here he says the bodies - 27 on Saturday morning alone - are being taken to the morgue in the insurgent-held city of Donetsk, some 50 kilometres.

Outside the morgue though, another AFP journalist is warned off by two Kalashnikov-wielding insurgents and a worker refuses to comment on where the bodies are.

What happens to the bodies is of pressing concern, with relatives of the victims from Amsterdam to Australia desperate to recover the remains of their loved ones.

The Ukrainian government has accused the rebels of destroying evidence and spiriting away the bodies but the separatist leaders have pledged to allow investigators and recovery workers access.

But international monitors have so far struggled for access and on Saturday a delegation from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) only got through to a small part of the site after a tense standoff with armed insurgents.

There they can see that the recovery operation is rudimentary at best and lacks even the most basic equipment.

"Do you have any refrigerated tents?" one monitor asks one of the salvage team standing among a crowd of armed men. The worker just shakes his head.

Nearby lie the scattered possessions of the victims: suitcases torn open, passports, books, children's toys.

Just an hour and a half later and the observers are already on their way back to base having once again been prevented from surveying the whole area and most importantly the main impact site.

"We had the possibility to speak to those in charge, the local residents and to those who are collecting the bodies," says Alexander Hug, the head of the delegation.

Shortly after the monitors leave two buses carrying some 50 people pull up to the scene. They are nurses from a local hospital and miners, dressed in their work clothes and covered in soot, who have come to help.

"This is the second time that I've come to help but I hate it here," says Zhenya, 21.

"Already yesterday they picked us up at the mine but what horror - all these mutilated, rotting bodies."