Investigators Finally Reach MH17 Crash Site as Ukraine Declares 24-Hour Cease-Fire


Members of the OSCE mission in Ukraine, examine a piece of the crashed plane on July 23.
KIEV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian government is halting its military operation against Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine for 24 hours so that international investigators can reach the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 for the first time since the jetliner was shot down two weeks ago.
“We have taken a decision not to conduct military operations on this so-called ‘day of quiet,’” military spokesman Oleksiy Dmytrashkivsky told AFP on Thursday.
Australian and Dutch experts, who arrived at the site on Thursday afternoon, hope to retrieve the dozens of bodies still strewn around the area and collect victims’ belongings.
But after two weeks of exposure to the elements, including the scorching summer sun and wild animals, they are likely to be in poor condition should they be recovered. Some 200 bodies have already been transported from Ukraine to the Netherlands for identification.

Deadly clashes between government forces and the rebels in the embattled Donetsk and Luhansk regions had, until now, kept the team of police and forensic experts from reaching the site, which spans three villages and more than 30 square miles.
Members of the OSCE accessed the crash site a few times for observations only. However, investigators have been shut out. The team turned back multiple times this week because of intense fighting raging around the area, and pro-Russian rebels guarding the site have denied them access as well.

OSCE members observe the crash site on July 25.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop took to Twitter to express her delight that the experts managed to make it to the site.
“Great news as Dutch-Aussie advance-party of experts have just made it on to MH17 crash site. At last work begins to bring our people home,” she wrote.

Alexander Hug, deputy head of the OSCE mission to Ukraine, left, his colleagues and a pro-Russian rebel, 2nd right, examine a map as they try to estimate security conditions around the crash site on July 30, 2014.
For their part, Russian specialists also hope to visit the crash site to conduct their own independent investigation. Sergei Izvolsky, of Rosaviatsiya, Russia’s federal air transport agency, told the Associated Press that a delegation was due to arrive in Kiev on Thursday.
Izvolsky said the Russian experts would turn over all materials relevant to the investigation to their Dutch counterparts.
The surprise one-day cease-fire came after after a plea from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday.
“The Secretary-General calls on all parties to immediately halt hostilities in the proximity of the crash site so as to allow the international teams unimpeded access to the site,” his press service quoted him as saying.
Still, reports on Thursday indicated that fighting around the site raged on, despite the temporary armistice. The website of Donetsk’s mayor reported fierce fighting in Zhovtneve, near Donetsk.

People walk across an exploded bridge near the village of Debaltseve, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, Thursday, July 31, 2014.
Kiev blamed the rebels for not acknowledging the cease-fire, saying they had continued to shell government forces nearby.
“On 31 July, troops involved in the active ATO [anti-terrorist operation] phase are not conducting military operations apart from protecting their own positions from attack,” it said. “But mercenary fighters of the Russian terrorists are not respecting any international agreements and requests.”
Rebel commander Igor Girkin, who goes by the nom de guerre “Strelkov,” meaning “the shooter,” did not comment on Kiev’s allegations. But he did allegedly tell reporters in Donetsk that the Ukrainian government was preparing a serious “provocation.”

“The Ukrainian junta is preparing terrorist acts in the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] and LNR [Luhansk People’s Republic] using “Tochka-U missiles,” the Donetsk People's Republic's press service quoted Girkin as saying, referring to the ballistic rocket systems in Ukraine's arsenal. Specifically, government forces were planning a "chemical weapon attack" that would create massive chlorine clouds over Donetsk.

Kiev did not immediately respond to the allegations.
Kiev officials and Western leaders say the Boeing 777 carrying 298 people was downed by an advanced Soviet-era Buk surface-to-air rocket system operated by the rebels on July 17. Russia presented its own evidence, which it says shows a Ukrainian fighter jet armed with air-to-air missiles is more likely to be the culprit.

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