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Malaysia team due in Kiev as anger mounts over MH17

A Malaysian disaster response team including two air accident investigators was due in Kiev on Saturday after the country’s leader appealed for access to the MH17 crash site with Malaysian anger over the disaster mounting.

Prime Minister Najib Razak said he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone late Friday to stress the need for an objective, unfettered probe into the crash that killed 298 people, amid concerns the site was vulnerable to tampering.

“I also told Putin that the site should not be tampered (with) before the team begins its investigation,” he was quoted saying by Malaysian national news agency Bernama.

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 came down in a separatist-held region, with the United States saying it was shot down in a missile attack, a possible casualty of Ukraine’s battle with pro-Russia rebels.

The 62-member Malaysian team was expected to arrive in Kiev early Saturday, a Malaysia Airlines source told AFP.

Malaysia’s Transport Ministry said it would include two accredited air crash investigators invited by Ukraine to help probe responsibility for the disaster.

– Concerns over access –

Though the plane went down in rebel territory in Ukraine, the Kiev government has the authority to investigate the crash, under international conventions.

But concerns have emerged after international observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe were able to gain only partial access to one of the crash sites Friday and were blocked from going further by armed rebels.

US President Barack Obama has said evidence suggests the plane was downed by a missile fired from the rebel-held zone.

The disaster has deeply shocked Malaysia, which is still grappling with the trauma of the March 8 disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 with 239 passengers and crew aboard, including 38 Malaysians.

No trace of MH370 has been found, a mystery that has severely damaged Malaysia’s image abroad and left furious passengers’ relatives deeply anguished and demanding answers.

“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.

The airline says 44 Malaysians were on the flight.

– Anger mounts –

In an address to the nation late Friday, Najib said the perpetrators must be brought to 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.

Civil servant Nor Azizah Johar, 31, said her childhood friend Mohamad Ali Mohamad Salim was aboard the flight, and they had planned to meet up during the coming Eid al-Fitr Islamic festival.

“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.”

Kiev has accused pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian forces of committing a “terrorist act”.

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 culpable.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans arrived in Kiev with a team of 15 investigators, the national ANP news agency reported. Nearly 200 Dutch nationals were on board the plane.

The Malaysian team also includes disaster response and rescue personnel, medical experts, and representatives of the Malaysian air force, Malaysia Airlines and the country’s Department of Civil Aviation.

The team would head to Kiev in hopes of eventually reaching the crash site.

“President Putin said he hoped the Ukraine president (Petro Poroshenko) would agree to a ceasefire to enable the entry of the investigation team into the site,” Najib was quoted as saying after his conversation with the Russian leader.