GRABOVE, Ukraine (AFP) ― The Netherlands on Sunday scrapped plans to send an international armed mission to secure the crash site of Malaysian flight MH17, fearing a deployment risked being dragged into the conflict in east Ukraine.
Dutch authorities leading the probe into the downing of the passenger airliner carrying 298 people had along with Australia planned to send armed officers, but Prime Minister Mark Rutte said this is no longer viable.
“Getting the military upper hand for an international mission in this area is according to our conclusion not realistic,” Rutte told journalists in The Hague, noting the presence of heavily armed separatists and the proximity of the border with Russia ― accused of backing the rebels.
“We concluded with our international partners that there’s a real risk of such an international military mission becoming directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine,” Rutte said.
Even an unarmed team of Dutch and Australian officers was forced to drop their plans to visit the site Sunday as heavy bombardments rocked towns close to the site, where some remains of the 298 victims from the plane still lie decomposing under the summer sun.
|This document released by the U.S. State Department in Washington on Sunday shows a satellite image purportedly revealing self-propelled artillery only found in Russian military units, on the Russian side of the border, oriented in the direction of a Ukrainian military unit within Ukraine. (AP-Yonhap)|
A small reconnaissance team traveled to assess the situation, but “stopped out of security concern” after seeing heavy weapons, said Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the European security body OSCE’s special mission in Ukraine.
“We saw for ourselves mortar artillery. This confirmed our decision not to go,” he told reporters in the insurgent stronghold Donetsk, the biggest city in the region.
An AFP photographer heard artillery bombardments just a kilometer from the rebel-held town of Grabove, next to the crash site, and saw black smoke billowing into the sky.
Terrified local residents were fleeing and checkpoints controlled by separatist fighters were abandoned.
Amid the fierce fighting that claimed 13 lives on Sunday including those of two children, Washington released satellite images to bolster its claim that Russian artillery has fired across the border into Ukraine, targeting government forces in support of separatists.
Earlier, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had said 49 officers from the Netherlands and Australia ― which together lost some 221 citizens in the crash ― were due at the scene Sunday and that there would be “considerably more on site in coming days.”
That came after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he had reached an agreement with the pro-Russian insurgents controlling the site to allow the police deployment and that Malaysia would send 68 officers on Wednesday.
So far investigators have visited the site only sporadically because of security concerns, even though a truce had been called in the immediate area around the site by both the Kiev forces and pro-Russian separatists.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin insisted on Twitter Kiev is “committed to its unilateral cease-fire within (a) 40 km zone of (the) MH17 site,” and “terrorists (are) destroying evidence of the crime.”
Fighting was also raging elsewhere as the Ukrainian army pushes on with its offensive to retake the industrial east.
Local authorities reported at least 13 people including two children aged 1 and 5 killed on Sunday during fierce combat in rebel holdout Gorlivka, about 45 kilometers to the north of Donetsk, and which has a population of about a quarter of a million.
Ukraine’s military accused insurgent fighters of firing unguided Grad rockets at residential blocks in the city “aiming to bring discredit to the Ukrainian army and frighten the noncombattants.”
A rebel commander from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic told a press conference that the situation in Gorlivka was “fine for the moment.”
The outskirts of mining hub Donetsk itself was also subject to intense bombardment throughout the night, some of it apparently Grad rocket fire.
The city of 1 million has been serving as a base for international monitors and journalists who are traveling regularly to the crash site.
Ukraine’s antiterrorism office said a female Polish journalist working for pro-Kiev Espreso TV was seriously wounded in clashes the Lugansk region and evacuated.
Ignoring safety warnings, an Australian couple had traveled to the crash site without any escort Saturday, saying they were fulfilling a promise to their only child that they would be there.
“She was full of life,” said Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski of their 25-year-old daughter Fatima, an aerospace engineering student.
Dutch authorities have identified the first victim, after 227 coffins with remains inside were flown to the Netherlands for identification.
The insurgents said they have also handed over a sealed train carriage filled with victims’ belongings to the Dutch.
In Brussels, the European Union is drafting tougher sanctions against Russia -- which it accuses of abetting the insurgency by arming the rebels who allegedly shot down the aircraft.
Sanctions targeting economic sectors including an arms embargo are being considered, while on Tuesday the bloc is expected to unveil more names of individuals and entities sanctioned.
Moscow has blasted the move as “irresponsible,” and warned that it jeopardized cooperation on security issues.
About 1,000 people -- including the victims of the Malaysian plane crash -- have been killed in the deadly insurgency, and the United Nations says some 230,000 have fled their homes.