Brussels (AFP) – The EU was set to approve punishing sanctions against Russia Tuesday over its role in the Ukraine crisis, as fighting in the strife-torn east again prevented international experts from reaching the crash site of Malaysian flight MH17.
For the third day running, an unarmed team of Dutch and Australian police ditched plans to travel to the scene of the disaster as “there is currently too much fighting on and around the road to the crash site,” said the Netherlands’ justice ministry.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country is leading the probe into a disaster that killed 193 of its citizens, called Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko to ask him to call off the fighting blocking access to the zone.
“We want to get to the crash site as quickly as possible to get the victims and bring them home,” a Dutch government spokesman said.
But the Ukrainian military denied it was carrying out hostilities near the vast MH17 site, where the remains of some of the 298 victims still lie 12 days on.
Instead, the army said “pockets of insurgents are continuing to fire on Ukrainian positions from the towns of Snizhne, Torez and Shakhtarsk,” all within about 30 kilometers (18 miles) of the site.
The fighting came a day after rebels claimed Kiev had regained control over part of the site.
Kiev also denied this, with its military spokesman Andriy Lysenko saying the rebels were still in control.
Amid the chaos, Dutch authorities warned the remains of some victims may never be recovered.
“I believe the chances are not very good,” Dutch police chief Gerard Bouman told parliament.
Witnesses have uploaded 150 photos and videos to a Dutch police server set up to help piece together the downing of flight MH17, a spokeswoman said.
The police issued an online appeal for images of the crash site — before, during and after — to aid a reconstruction of events.
Kiev said on Monday that data from the doomed plane’s black boxes showed the crash was caused by shrapnel from a rocket explosion.
The information from the flight recorders was decrypted in Britain after pro-Russian rebels handed them to Malaysian officials.
UN rights chief Navi Pillay condemned the plane’s downing as a possible war crime and demanded a full and independent investigation.
The Red Cross has said Ukraine is now in civil war — a classification that would make parties in the conflict liable to prosecution for war crimes.
More than 1,100 people have been killed in the fighting has engulfed eastern Ukraine over the past three months, the United Nations said, a toll that does not include the plane crash victims.
The insurgents launched their bloody bid to join Russia as Kiev veered decisively towards the West after deposing pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February.
They swiftly overran vast swathes of the mainly Russian-speaking eastern industrial heartland in April but government forces have begun to regain ground, with key city Slavyansk recaptured early this month.
Heavy fighting is ongoing in another rebel stronghold Lugansk, with local authorities reporting five people killed and eight wounded due to “constant firing” on the town over the past 24 hours.
Donetsk, the biggest rebel-held city in the region with about a million in population, has also been subjected to heavy pounding.
AFP journalists said three loud explosions were heard on Tuesday, sending Dutch and Australian police officers who were sitting outside on their hotel terrace, running for cover inside.
The military meanwhile reported 10 soldiers killed and 55 injured in clashes over the past few days.
Western powers meanwhile are moving to tighten the screws on Russia, which they blame for fanning the rebellion by supplying it with weapons.
Envoys from the bloc’s 28 states meeting in Brussels are expected to widen sanctions by approving sector-wide embargoes in four key areas: access to capital markets, defense, dual-use goods and sensitive technologies, including in the energy sector.
The sanctions are likely to sink Russia — which posted zero growth in the second quarter after a first-quarter contraction — into recession.
Washington, which believes Russia supplied the missile system used to attack MH17, has also released photographs to bolster a claim that Moscow was taking a direct role in the conflict by firing into Ukraine.
Russia has denied the Western accusations, while rebel commander Igor Strelkov has also said his side had nothing to do with the MH17 disaster.
“I don’t know how the plane was downed, by what means. I only know that it was downed and that’s it. The only thing I can say is that my men did not down it,” said Strelkov.
AFP Photo/Dominique Faget