HRABOVE, Ukraine (USA TODAY) -- International monitors who have finally gained full access to the Malaysia Airlines crash site in eastern Ukraine said Tuesday the Boeing 777's cockpit inexplicably had been sawed in half while under the control of Russian-backed separatists.
The monitors said said large parts of the cockpit -- and every part of the fuselage -- were carried off. They said they are not sure why such vital pieces of evidence from the downed plane were tampered with.
Flight 17, carrying 283 passengers and 15 crew members, crashed Thursday after being hit by what U.S. officials suspect was a surface-to-air missile launched from an area controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
The separatists and Russia have denied shooting down the plane, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
The cockpit was found in a section of the crash site that had been immediately cordoned off during the first two days after the plane went down. Witnesses tell USA TODAY that this was also the area where the first bodies were removed.
The cockpit apparently was cut in half with diesel-powered saws.
"The rear part of the aircraft, one of the biggest intact pieces, has definitely been hacked into," said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the group of international monitors from the Organize for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
On Monday, President Obama had called on Russia on Monday to get separatists to stop hampering the crash investigation and allow international experts free access to the crash site.
"The separatists are removing evidence from the crash site," he said. "All of which begs the question: What are they trying to hide?"
In a related development, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said Tuesday in Brussels that the European Union is imposing new sanctions against officials deemed responsible for Russia's actions in Ukraine.
Timmermans said the EU's "forceful decision" imposes visa bans and asset freezes on more officials.
He says the ministers also asked the 28-nation bloc's executive arm to prepare for more forceful economic sanctions — including targeting the arms, energy and financial sectors — if Russia fails to back down from destabilizing Ukraine.
Timmerman did not specify how many officials were targeted under the latest sanctions, nor did he reveal their names.
After a four-day standoff, international teams were allowed into the crash site to look for more bodies and to gather evidence, but are cognizant of the political upheaval in the area, which Russia-back rebels have claimed as independent of Ukraine.