Investigators Delay Visit to Ukraine Crash Site Over Danger

Jul 27, 2014 10:15 am ET

(Updates with U.S. evidence purportedly showing Russian shelling from first paragraph. For more on the Ukrainian crisis, see EXT2 <GO>)

July 27 (Bloomberg) -- Dutch and Australian investigators delayed plans to visit the Malaysian Air MH17 crash site in eastern Ukraine, citing fighting nearby, as the U.S. released photos to support allegations that Russia has been shelling across the border into Ukraine.

With European Union states threatening Russia with their toughest sanctions yet for what they say is its involvement in the conflict and the downing of MH17, Dutch investigators had planned to reach the site after being blocked by rebels yesterday. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe cited the “security situation” in the area around the site for the investigating team’s delay.

“The team of forensic workers isn’t traveling to the crash site as the situation is too unstable in the area,” Edmond Messchaert, a spokesman of the Dutch ministry of justice, said by telephone phone today.

The July 17 downing of the jet and death of its 298 passengers and crew is isolating Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denies involvement. Ukraine and its allies in the EU and U.S. say evidence indicates the rebels shot down the plane with a Russian-supplied missile and that they’ve since contaminated evidence by moving bodies and wreckage at the site.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin denied government forces were fighting rebels in the area and said they were respecting a 40-kilometer (24-mile) unilateral cease-fire perimeter around the crash site.

“Their argument is fake,” he posted on Twitter. “Terrorists destroying evidence of the crime?”

Satellite Pictures

The State Department released photos by e-mail it says are evidence of Russian forces firing artillery and rockets across the border at Ukraine’s army, following similar allegations on July 24.

The satellite pictures purportedly show ground scarring from multiple rocket launchers on the Russian side pointed toward Ukraine and what the U.S. says are corresponding impacts on Ukrainian territory. They also show self-propelled artillery only found in Russian military units and blast craters near Ukrainian forces, according to the State Department.

The U.S. delegation to the OSCE said today on its website that Russia also continues to send arms across the border into Ukraine. Russia has denied allegations that the country is aiding the rebels fighting the government in eastern Ukraine.

The Dutch government held a ministry council to discuss the efforts to bring back the remains of the victims of the MH17 crash, according to a statement on its website today. The Netherlands had 194 citizens on the plane.

Nearest Future

Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Andriy Lysenko said today government troops would free the eastern part of the country from the rebels “in the nearest future.”

Ukrainian troops battled insurgents in Horlivka, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) northeast of the regional capital Donetsk, a city of 1 million people where rebels retreated after abandoning other positions earlier this month.

Government troops killed about 20 rebels and destroyed eight vehicles in the town, Lysenko told a news conference in Kiev today. Lysenko said earlier that “Donetsk will be next.” Ukrainian troops were also fighting in Shakhtersk, about 20 kilometers away from the crash site, local news wire Novosti Donbasa reported today. That would put the fighting right at the edge of the 40-kilometer cease-fire perimeter.

Unarmed Australian police were given a green light to join the planned Dutch-led team to recover remains of victims and remove wreckage, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.

‘Risky Mission’

“This is a risky mission, no doubt about that,” Abbott said in a press conference today. “Our objective is principally to recover the bodies. We will stay as long as we can to do a professional job but we won’t stay a moment longer than we need to.’

Abbott had said on July 25 that some of the Australian police sent to the crash site may be armed. The Malaysian government said in a statement it was also sending police personnel to the crash site as part of the team.

About 49 personnel, including 11 police from Australia, will be dispatched to recover bodies and evidence, Abbott said in Canberra. There were 27 Australians on Flight MH17.

Data retrieved from flight recorders indicate the Malaysian jet was hit multiple times by shrapnel from a missile explosion, CBS News reported yesterday, citing a European air safety official it didn’t name.

A two-day reconnaissance of the site has been completed by Australian personnel, Special Envoy Angus Houston said in an interview on ABC television today, adding that Russian-backed rebels in the area were professional and cooperative.

The U.K. government said the crash site may have been altered.

‘‘Worryingly, we are aware of information suggesting that separatists were planning to scatter parts of other aircraft on the site,” the U.K. Foreign Office said in an e-mailed statement.

Malaysian Jet

U.S. intelligence officials have said separatists probably mistook the passenger jet, which was flying within a common commercial routing, for a Ukrainian government troop-transport plane.

Ukrainians’ desire for closer links with Europe, the U.S. and their allies has long been a source of tension with Putin, who intervened in Ukraine after pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych stepped down in February, fueling the five-month insurgency. Russia accused the U.S. of fomenting the uprising that led to Yanukovych’s ouster.

Abbott has been in contact with Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during the past 24 hours, he said. The crash site investigation may take as long as three weeks to complete, Abbott said.