Friday, August 1, 2014 10:02 pm
by Anna MALPAS with Max DELANY in Kiev
KIROVSKE – Dutch and Australian experts gathered more remains from the crash site of downed flight MH17 in east Ukraine, as they scrambled to make up for lost time amid deadly clashes between government troops and pro-Russian rebels.
Seventy police investigators — by far the largest number to reach the location so far — finally managed to comb the scattered wreckage in the fields where the Malaysia Airlines plane was downed two weeks ago killing all 298 people on board.
More than 220 coffins have been sent back to the Netherlands, which lost 193 citizens in the July 17 crash, but efforts to recover more remains left at the site have been hampered by clashes between government troops and separatist fighters around the insurgent-controlled territory.
“We are happy that we can make sure that these remains can now be sent,” said Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, the Dutch police official sent to Ukraine to head up the mission there.
“We hope that this can bring comfort to the bereaved. It is a relief that our people are now at work.”
Despite the international team managing to begin work at the site the fighting that had impeded their probe continued to rage across eastern Ukraine on Friday.
The Ukrainian military said an overnight ambush by insurgents in Shakhtarsk, a town 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the main impact site, left 14 people dead, including at least 10 soldiers.
Thirteen more soldiers were injured and another 11 were missing as fighting wore on, the military said.
The clash broke a brief lull during a one-day ceasefire from the Ukrainian authorities.
An AFP team some 12 kilometres from the MH17 site heard the sound of tank fire and saw smoke rising from the direction of Shakhtarsk.
Both rebels and Kiev have vowed to keep open an access corridor to the crash site, while Ukraine’s army has pledged not to fight in the immediate vicinity.
Elsewhere around the region though, government forces relaunched their offensive to oust the separatists, after a “day of quiet” brought a brief pause to over three months of fighting that has cost the lives of more than 1,100 people on the ground.
– Fighting around rebel bastions –
The military claims it is getting close to cutting off the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk from the Russian border and the second insurgent bastion of Lugansk, saying it took the village of Novyi Svit, some 25 kilometres southeast of the industrial hub.
Fighting also flared in Donetsk, which serves as the base for the international police and journalists trying to reach the MH17 site some 60 kilometres away, with local authorities saying one civilian died after a minibus taxi was hit by mortar shrapnel.
In Lugansk, officials said five civilians were killed and nine injured in clashes over the past 24 hours.
The continuing violence highlighted the huge task facing the international probe into the downing of the Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flight, as more experts from Malaysia were due to arrive.
Experts are looking to move in heavier equipment and sniffer dogs to help scour the vast site and will set up a new base to help handle the remains.
Back in the Netherlands the painstaking task of processing the bodies carried on with only the second body to be identified so far revealed as a Dutch national.
The United States says the pro-Russian insurgents likely shot down the plane with a missile supplied from Russia. But Moscow and the rebels contend the aircraft could have been brought down by a Ukrainian fighter jet.
Russia’s aviation authorities have said that a team of their own experts had arrived in Kiev and were hoping to reach the crash site.
Meanwhile, rebel officials, Russian and Ukraine envoys, and international monitors also agreed to hold another round of talks next week after discussing a possible prisoner swap in a meeting in Belarus.
– International fallout –
The fresh fighting on the ground entrenched a crisis that has pushed East-West tensions to their highest point since the Cold War. The EU and US have hit Russia with the most punitive measures since the collapse of the Communist bloc over its backing for the rebels.
Russia has shrugged off the latest sanctions against its key finance, defence and energy sectors — despite warnings they could tip the country’s shaky economy into recession — and has warned that the measures would boomerang back to hurt Europe and US interests.
Some EU diplomats expressed concern that the tighter sanctions, which came into effect Friday, may in fact embolden Putin, convincing him that he no longer has anything to lose by further escalating the Ukraine conflict.
NATO has said Russia had boosted the number of troops along the border with Ukraine to “well over 12,000” and that the figure was on the rise.