DONETSK, Ukraine --It may be some time before the bodies of the victims of Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 are returned to their families.
In an exclusive interview with ABC News today, the leader of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic said they would not be turned over until international inspectors come here to inspect them.
"We can and we want to give bodies to the relatives but experts have to examine the bodies here. That is international practice," Alexander Borodai said.
He feared that if the remains are turned over to the Ukrainian government they will be used as evidence to blame his fighters for shooting down the plane, something he again denied.
The problem is that the team of international investigators remains in Kiev. Despite what has been described as a "preliminary" agreement on their travel to the crash site, there has been no announcement about when they might finally arrive.
Victims of Flight MH 17 Stuck in Limbo
Russia Involved With Rebels Who Downed Plane, Kerry Says
Rebels Take Full Control of Plane Crash Bodies
"We guarantee their safety and their ability to work. After that the bodies can be transported wherever," Borodai said. He insisted that he placed no conditions on their travel to the crash site and wants an "open and independent" investigation.
Borodai said he was willing to provide the remains unconditionally to the Russian government because he trusted them. Given Western accusations about Russia's backing for the rebels, however, it remains to be seen if that will be an acceptable offer.
For now, the remains of nearly 200 passengers remain under rebel control and are being stored in refrigerated rail cars, not far from the crash site. Borodai said they would remain there until they are transported following the examination.
At a press conference earlier in the day, Borodai defended the decision to remove the bodies from the wreckage on Saturday, two days after the crash, saying it was "inhumane" to leave them there. The State Department had criticized that decision, saying it was compromising the crime scene.
The United States has also voiced concerns about the crash site being compromised under rebel control.
"We do our best not to do it," Borodai said in response.
He dismissed growing concern about the crash site, which is essentially unguarded. Anywhere else in the world, such a scene would be roped off and crawling with investigators.
Yet here, only a handful of guards patrol the access roads and the wreckage. When ABC News departed the scene late Saturday evening, the rebels had retreated to their tents and left the site unmonitored.
Borodai said he has increased the number of guards but could not spare enough men from the front lines of their battle with the Ukrainian military.
"That is why we are inviting and waiting for the experts to come as soon as possible," he said.
Even so, few expect the rebels to be neutral guards in the first place. The United States has expressed concerns that key evidence may have been carried off or disturbed in the days since the crash.
In response to reports that the site may have been looted, Borodai insisted it was done only by a handful of locals and promised to prosecute them according to the "laws of war."
International monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who are not investigators but have been observing the conflict, have so far been unsatisfied with the access they have received at the crash site. On Saturday, rebel guards would not let them approach the wreckage.
Borodai said the OSCE team wanted him to cut off journalist access to the site, but he declined to do so, claiming his interest in "freedom of the press."
Earlier in the day, the U.S. Embassy in Kiev provided the most detailed evidence thus far to prove the rebels shot the passenger plane down with a surface to air missile.
Borodai confirmed that his forces had recently refurbished what he described as a Strela-10, an old Soviet-era mobile surface-to-air missile system, which he said was a war trophy taken from the Ukrainian military. He said the weapon did not have enough power or range to shoot down a passenger jet at cruising altitude.