Friday, August 01, 2014

Break In Fighting Lets International Team Reach Site Of Ukraine Crash

SHAKHTYORSK, Ukraine -- International monitors finally reached the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, after being blocked for days by fighting in the area between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russia separatists.

Ukrainian officials said they had suspended offensive operations against the rebels to allow the monitors to reach the site safely.

Commanders at Ukrainian military positions near the site confirmed that they had been ordered to halt their advance.

Even so, columns of smoke were seen near the site, and the sounds of explosions were heard.

In Shakhtyorsk, a mining town about 10 miles south of the site, gunshots and explosions were heard through the afternoon, though it was unclear who was firing. 

Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who was with the team at the crash site, said by telephone that the monitors had traveled through checkpoints in both government-controlled and rebel-held territory without encountering serious fighting.

Mr. Bociurkiw said the two Dutch, two Australian and eight O.S.C.E. experts who reached the site limited their work on Thursday to initial reconnaissance, preparing the way for search and recovery work by a larger team of about 60 police officers and forensic experts waiting in Donetsk, the provincial capital.

He said the reconnaissance team determined that the crash site had remained largely intact since the plane, carrying 298 people, crashed on July 17.

Though local emergency workers collected many of the bodies for shipment to a forensic laboratory in the Netherlands last week, Mr. Bociurkiw said the team saw human remains at the site on Thursday.

He said the monitors’ success in reaching the site, after four failed attempts, was attributable to “negotiating with all the stakeholders,” meaning both the Ukrainian government and the rebels who have controlled the site since the crash.

As the battle has swept over the site, the effort to recover the remaining bodies has become a harrowing challenge.

To reach the site on Thursday, the mission crossed the front lines twice in each direction.

The Ukrainian government says approaches to the area are now mined.

When Dutch and Australian police officers finally fan out to search for human remains, they will be accompanied by police officers from bomb squads.

The team’s journey on Thursday to the site from Donetsk, about 40 miles away, followed a circuitous route and took about four hours, Mr. Bociurkiw said.

Volodymyr Groysman, a deputy prime minister of Ukraine, told reporters in Kiev, the capital, that Russian and Ukrainian envoys had agreed at talks in Minsk, Belarus, to keep the route open for the monitors to use.

Donetsk, the nearest sizable city to the crash site, is the main remaining rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine.

Roads between Donetsk and the Russian border that pass near the crash site are conduits for rebel fighters and munitions, the government in Kiev has said, and the Ukrainian military has been trying to isolate the rebels by retaking them.

At one rebel checkpoint within the crash area, near the village of Rozsypnoe, The Associated Press reported that a separatist militiaman allowed the monitors to pass but fired a shot in the air to keep accompanying reporters from proceeding any farther.

He said there was still fighting in the village, the agency reported.

Reporters accompanying the group said explosions from nearby shelling could be heard.

Cornelis Kuijs, a Dutch police colonel who has command of the recovery effort, said the team would try to return on Friday all the same.

The Russian government aviation agency said on Thursday that it had sent its own team of experts to Kiev in hopes of reaching the crash site and examining the wreckage.

Vladimir Antyufeyev, the self-appointed acting prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, as the main separatist group in eastern Ukraine is known, said in an interview that a representative of the group would take part in the talks in Minsk on Friday, discussing security at the crash site with envoys from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Moscow kept up its economic pressure on Ukraine on Thursday by adding fruit juice to the growing list of Ukrainian agricultural products that have been banned from Russia.

Russia will also ban imports of sunflower seeds and sunflower oil, as well as soybeans and cornmeal, an agricultural official told a state news agency.

In Kiev, Ukraine’s deeply fractured legislature managed to head off a dispute with international creditors who have promised to bail out the country with $17.5 billion in loans, by approving budget amendments and tax measures that the creditors had demanded.

Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk had staked his position on the legislation, submitting his resignation last week after Parliament voted against adopting a similar bill.

His tactic succeeded on Thursday, when the legislature voted 109 to 16 against accepting his resignation.

“There are two pieces of news today,” Mr. Yatsenyuk told lawmakers afterward.

“The first is that Argentina has defaulted. The second is that Ukraine has not defaulted, and never will.”

Source: The New York Times

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