Dutch, Australian experts at MH17 Ukraine site after clashes kill 14

Dutch, Australian experts at MH17 Ukraine site after clashes kill 14
Ukrainian soldiers stand guard on July 31, 2014 near the convoy of the OSCE during their mission to reach the crash site of downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, at a check-point in the village of Debaltseve, in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine.

DONETSK, Ukraine - Dutch and Australian experts finally arrived at the site of downed Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in east Ukraine on Friday, after clashes between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian rebels killed 14 combattants.

The 70 police investigators "will conduct search operations in several places at the crash site," a Dutch government statement said. Any remains found of the 298 people who died in the tragedy would be recovered, it added.

The mission is tasked with launching an international probe into the downing two weeks ago of the airliner. Fighting and rebel restrictions to the site had prevented the investigation getting under way before now.

Although the Dutch and Australian officers made it there Friday, Ukraine's months-long conflict still raged around the zone.

The Ukrainian military said an overnight ambush by insurgents in Shakhtarsk, a town 25 kilometres (15 miles) from the impact site, left 14 people dead, including at least 10 soldiers. The clash broke a brief lull that had reigned around the site.

"In total it is known that 14 people died but the bodies of four of them have not been identified and could be Ukrainian soldiers or terrorists," military spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkivsky told AFP.

Both rebels and Kiev have vowed to secure a circuitous access corridor to the location traced by scouts from the international team Thursday. Ukraine's army has pledged not to fight in the immediate vicinity of the insurgent-held site.

But elsewhere around the region government forces relaunched their brutal offensive to oust the separatists, ending a "day of quiet" that had brought a brief pause to over three months of fighting that has cost the lives of more than 1,100 people on the ground.

Ongoing fighting

The military said that it had made fresh gains by taking the village of Novyi Svit, some 25 kilometres southeast of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, and was waging operations to secure the volatile border with Russia.

Fighting also flared in Donetsk, a rebel-held city that 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 the second rebel bastion of Lugansk, officials said five civilians were killed and nine injured due to 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 also arrived in Ukraine.

Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko gave assurances in a phone call with the Australian and Dutch prime ministers that the experts would from now on be able to conduct "daily" visits to the crash site.

But Dutch police taking the lead said the security situation remains "very unstable".

The United States says the pro-Russian insurgents likely shot down the plane on July 17 with a missile supplied from Russia. But Moscow and the rebels contend the aircraft could have been blown out of sky by a Ukrainian jet.

Russia's aviation authorities said Thursday 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 set of talks next week after discussing a possible prisoner swap in the 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 - threatening 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 President Vladimir Putin, convincing him that he no longer has anything to lose by further escalating the Ukraine conflict.

NATO has said that 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.

Russia also ratcheted up tensions by announcing fresh war games involving surface-to-air missiles along its southern flank this week.

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