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Police team turns back from Ukraine crash site

By Peter Leonard

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 28 2014 8:37 a.m. MDT

Self-proclamed Donetsk People's Republic policemen search a minivan near Shakhtarsk, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine on Monday, July 28, 2014. An international police team abandoned its attempt to reach the crash site of a Malaysia Airlines plane for a second day running Monday as clashes raged in a town on the road to the area.

Dmitry Lovetsky, Associated Press

SHAKHTARSK, Ukraine — Heavy fighting raged Monday around the Malaysia Airlines debris field, once again preventing an international police team charged with securing the site from even getting there.

Government troops have stepped up their push to win back territory from pro-Russian separatists in fighting that the United Nations said Monday has killed more than 1,100 people in four months.

The international delegation of Australian and Dutch police and forensic experts stopped Monday in Shakhtarsk, a town around 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the fields where the Boeing 777 was brought down.

Sounds of regular shelling could be heard from Shakhtarsk and residents were seen fleeing town in cars.

Associated Press reporters saw a high-rise apartment block in Shakhtarsk being hit by at least two rounds of artillery.

The mandate of the police team is to secure the currently rebel-controlled area so that comprehensive investigations can begin and any remaining bodies can be recovered.

The second cancelled site visit over two days has strained tempers among the observation team.

"There a job to be done," said Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "We are sick and tired of being interrupted by gunfights, despite the fact that we have agreed that there should be a ceasefire."

The Defense Ministry says Ukrainian troops have entered Shakhtarsk, although checkpoints blocking the western entrance into town remain under rebel control. It also said fighting was taking place in Snizhne, which lies directly south of the crash site, and in other towns in the east.

The self-declared Donetsk People's Republic said on its official Twitter that fighting was ongoing in the village of Rozsypne, where some of the wreckage still lays strewn and uncollected.

The head of the rebel's military headquarters, Igor Ivanov, told Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti that the village had fallen into government hands, but that information could not immediately be confirmed.

Ukraine has accused rebels of tampering with evidence at the plane crash site and trying to cover up their alleged role in bringing the Malaysia Airlines jet down with an anti-aircraft missile.

Separatist officials have staunchly denied responsibility for shooting down the airliner and killing all 298 people onboard.

A Ukrainian security spokesman said Monday that data from the recovered flight recorders shows Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed due to a massive, explosive loss of pressure after being punctured multiple times by shrapnel. Andrei Lysenko said the plane suffered "massive explosive decompression" after it was hit by fragments he said came from a missile.

The data recorders were sent to experts in Britain for examination.

In their campaign to wrest control over more territory from separatist forces, Ukraine's army has deployed a growing amount of heavy weaponry. Rebels have also been able to secure large quantities of powerful weapons, much of which the United States and Ukraine maintain is being supplied by Russia.

Moscow dismisses those charges.

While Russia and Ukraine trade accusations, the death toll has been mounting swiftly.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a report out Monday that at least 1,129 people have been killed between mid-April, when fighting began, and July 26. The report said at least 3,442 people had been wounded and more than 100,000 people had left their homes. A U.N. report from mid-June put the death toll at 356.

Navi Pillay, the U.N.'s top human rights official, also called for a quick investigation into the downing of the plane, which she said may be a war crime.

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