GRABOVE, Ukraine - Workers started winching debris from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on to trucks in eastern Ukraine Sunday, paving the way for its eventual return to the Netherlands four months after it was downed, killing 298 people.
A crew from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic - the pro-Moscow separatists who hold the territory - supervised by Dutch experts used metal saws to cut up the wreckage before it was lifted on to trucks at the remote crash site near the village of Grabove.
Pieces of the engine, cabin and a seat were clearly identifiable among the charred wreckage of the doomed Boeing 777, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
"The first pieces of debris from the MH17 wreckage were gathered up today," said a statement from the Dutch Safety Board, whose investigators are leading the probe into the shooting down of the July 17 flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
"If circumstances permit, work will restart tomorrow. We expect that the gathering up and removal of debris will take a number of days." After being collected, the debris from the airliner will be transported to the government-controlled city of Kharkiv and then flown to the Netherlands.
The Dutch experts eventually intend to reconstruct a section of the doomed airliner.
A rebel official said the crew of some 15 people from Donetsk's emergency ministry hoped to finish the operations in the next 10 days and that they would focus on the largest chunks of fuselage first.
The team faces a race to complete the recovery effort before harsh winter conditions in the former Soviet state make it difficult to continue.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of supplying pro-Moscow rebels with the missile that shot down the aircraft. Russia and the separatists deny it, blaming Ukrainian forces instead.
A preliminary report by Dutch investigators published in September found the plane was hit by a large number of "high-energy objects", but did not apportion blame.
Putin swaps G20 for bed
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also denies providing military support to the separatists, came under fresh pressure over Ukraine and MH17 at the G20 summit in Brisbane.
After a series of frosty exchanges with fellow leaders, Putin left the summit early on Sunday, saying he needed to catch up on some sleep.
The MH17 probe team has so far managed to collect and identify the remains of 289 victims from the tragedy but its operations have been disrupted by fierce fighting in the area between Ukrainian forces and rebels.
Around the region Sunday, fighting dragged on between the two sides, with the Ukrainian military saying that six soldiers were injured as its positions came under mortar fire 26 times during the night.
In the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, fresh shelling broke out on Sunday afternoon after a quiet morning, an AFP reporter said.
In the neighbouring separatist region of Lugansk, three volunteers fighting for the Ukrainian forces were killed, the interior ministry in Kiev said.
'Ready for total war'
The latest clashes come amid a nominal ceasefire that has halted fighting along much of the frontline but not stopped regular artillery bombardments at strategic hotspots.
Over 4,100 people have been killed in the conflict since April and almost one million have been driven from their homes, according to UN figures.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko told German daily Bild that his country wanted peace but was ready for a full-scale war.
"I am not afraid of a war with Russian troops," he said in an interview to be published Monday."We are prepared for a scenario of total war." During a visit to Bratislava on Sunday the Ukrainian leader said the conflict in the east would "end within two weeks" if the peace plan signed in Minsk in September was implemented.
The European Union and United States have slapped the toughest sanctions on Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union over its meddling in Ukraine.
EU foreign ministers will again discuss the situation in Ukraine at a meeting in Brussels on Monday.
A Ukrainian military spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said Sunday there were "signs that rebels and Russian troops are preparing an offensive".
His comments came after NATO's commander in Europe, US General Philip Breedlove, said last week that "columns of Russian equipment, primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defence systems and Russian combat troops" were entering Ukraine.
However, military analysts say an offensive seems unlikely since the amount of hardware being moved into the east is insufficient for a major operation, which would also be highly challenging in winter.