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Investigators make it to Ukraine jet crash site

By Mstyslav Chernov

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, July 31 2014 11:22 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 31 2014 11:22 a.m. MDT

A youth holds a placard during a rally to seek justice for the victims of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, outside the Parliament house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. A team of Malaysian investigators visited the site along with members of the the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Ukraine for the first time since the air crash last week.

Lai Seng Sin, Associated Press

ROZSYPNE, Ukraine — International investigators got their first look Thursday at the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, finally reaching the site two weeks after a missile brought down the plane. Fighting between Ukrainian troops and separatist rebels raged around them but the investigators called their brief inspection visit a success.

Clashes along routes to the wreckage site had kept the delegation from reaching the area to find and retrieve bodies that have been lying in open fields where midsummer temperatures have hovered around 90 degrees (32 degrees Celsius) for the last several weeks.

But the investigators were allowed early Thursday afternoon through a checkpoint leading to the crash site at the village of Rozsypne by a rifle-toting militiaman who then fired a warning shot to prevent reporters from accompanying the convoy.

The militiaman, who gave his name only as Sergei, said there was still fighting in Rozsypne as the Ukrainian army continues an offensive to take back swatches of territory from the rebels.

The team of police and forensic experts from the Netherlands and Australia spent about an hour inspecting the scene before returning to their base in the rebel held city of Donetsk base before the evening.

Australian Federal Police commander Brian McDonald said the visit was only a preliminary survey ahead of more comprehensive recovery work of bodies and victims' personal belongings.

"We had a quick inspection of the site. Today was more about an assessment of the site than it was of a search," said McDonald, who was in police uniform.

As many as 80 bodies are still at the site, said Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from Ukraine.

Ukrainian national security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said a "day of quiet" was declared Thursday in response to a call for a cease-fire from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

But Associated Press reporters near the crash site confirmed Thursday that clashes were still taking place in the immediate vicinity of where the Boeing 777 came down.

Reporters who attempted to reach the crash site by another route were warned by residents that some nearby roads have been mined.

AP reporters passing through Hrabove, another village around which fragments of the plane remain uncollected, saw one mortar fall on a spot about 150 meters (160 yards) from their car and heard two more hit nearby. It was not immediately clear who fired the mortars or what the intended target was though Lysenko put the blame on rebels.

Thursday's drive took the convoy of four investigators and eight officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation Donetsk through the town of Debaltseve, which was retaken earlier this week by the government, and later back into rebel territory.

Armored personnel carriers and light armored trucks bearing the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian national flag could be seen in and around Debaltseve and residents at one entrance to the town walked along a pontoon erected over the remains of a blown-up bridge.

The OSCE said on its Twitter account that the team observed a moment of silence upon reaching the scene in remembrance of the victims.

And Alexander Hug, deputy head of the OSCE mission to Ukraine, provided no details on what was seen during the visit but called but called it a success because officials "managed to access the site without any incident."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office in a statement urged rebels to comply with a cease-fire spanning an area 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) around the crash site.

A delegation from Russia's state aviation body said Thursday it also hoped to visit the site, an agency spokesman said.

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