Fighting stops MH17 investigators from reaching Ukraine crash site
DONETSK, Ukraine (CNN) — International investigators and observers were again prevented from reaching the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on Tuesday by fierce fighting in the area between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces.
The Dutch Justice Ministry said the team was unable to leave the city of Donetsk because "there is too much fighting at the moment on and near the route to the disaster site."
The 50-person team of Dutch and Australian experts, accompanied by monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, was also forced to abandon its attempts to reach the site Sunday and Monday.
The latest setback comes as European Union ambassadors prepare to discuss broader sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, in line with new measures to be taken by Washington.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said that a Russian-made missile system was used to shoot down MH17 from rebel territory. Russia and the rebels have disputed the allegations and blamed Ukraine for the crash.
Twelve days since Flight 17 was blown out of the sky, the Dutch investigators in charge of finding out what happened have yet to lay eyes on the wreckage or the human remains believed still to be strewn across the huge debris field near the town of Torez.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte asked Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a phone call Tuesday morning to halt the fighting around the crash site so that investigators can access it, Rutte spokesman Jean Fransman said.
On Monday, Ukrainian forces launched an offensive to try to recapture a series of towns on the main road leading toward the debris field.
However, Andriy Lysenko, the spokesman for Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, told reporters it was the militants' activities that have prevented access to the crash site, not fighting by Ukrainian forces.
He said the rebels would be forced to leave the area. "As soon as they leave, the experts will be able to start working there. But at the moment it's dangerous; we cannot guarantee security on the territories occupied by the terrorists," he said. Ukrainian authorities routinely refer to the rebels as terrorists. "We are doing everything to liberate the territories."
Lysenko also accused the pro-Russian militants of using civilians as human shields as Ukrainian forces try to push them out of their strongholds in Donetsk and Luhansk.
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine had said earlier Tuesday via Twitter that "intensive planning" was under way to reach the crash site "as soon as it is safe to do so."
Pieter Jaap Aalbersberg, head of the Dutch recovery mission, said late Monday that the team had turned back to Donetsk then because of gunfire near the town of Shaktarsk.
"The experts and I are deeply disappointed that we were unable to reach the crash site again," he said.
"It is frustrating to have to wait to do the job they came to do. Their motivation comes from the deep conviction that the relatives are entitled to have their loved ones and their personal effects returned to them. At the same time, we have to guarantee the safety of our people."
Aalbersberg said the OSCE was talking to all sides in the conflict to try to secure safe access. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans and his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop are also pursuing diplomatic avenues in Kiev, he said.
Aalbersberg said the search for victims was the team's top priority. "If the experts find remains, they will be recovered immediately," he said, using a refrigerated train wagon near Torez. "If the train is inaccessible for whatever reason, we will arrange other transport. We will not leave any remains behind."
OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw told CNN's "New Day" on Monday that the monitors were "really sick and tired of being delayed" in their vital mission.
"We all know there are still human remains out there exposed to the elements, number one," he said. "Secondly, it is one of the biggest open crime scenes in the world as we speak, and it is not secured. There's no security perimeter around the 30- or 35-square-kilometer site."
As the fighting Tuesday prevented the monitors from reaching the site for a third straight day, Bociurkiw reported "very powerful explosions" rocking Donetsk.
Ambassadors from EU member states are meeting Tuesday in Brussels, Belgium, to consider their next steps over Russia's alleged involvement in Ukraine's conflict.
The new proposals include sanctions on weapons, goods that can be used for both civilian and military purposes, access to European capital markets and on the export of energy technology from Europe to Russia.
Their meeting comes a day after White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken announced that the United States would place new sanctions on Russia this week, without elaborating.
U.S. President Barack Obama held a joint call Monday with British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in which the leaders decided further steps were needed to put pressure on Russia.
They agreed that Russia has failed to deescalate the crisis, a spokesman for Cameron said, and that "even since MH17 was shot down, Russia continues to transfer weapons across the border and to provide practical support to the separatists.
"Leaders agreed that the international community should therefore impose further costs on Russia and specifically that Ambassadors from across the EU should agree a strong package of sectoral sanctions as swiftly as possible."
Japan announced its own assets freeze Monday against Russian individuals and companies it considers directly involved in Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region. It said it would take concerted action with the EU and barred imports from Crimea.
Russia's Foreign Ministry responded Tuesday by warning that the move would harm relations between their two nations and was an "unfriendly and short-sighted step based on a deeply mistaken view about the real causes of what is happening in Ukraine."
The defense minister for the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, Igor Strelkov, said Monday that there had been "extremely severe" battles between his rebel forces and the Ukrainian military in the area of Shaktarsk and Torez.
He said a number of injured rebel fighters, as well as some medical personnel, had been evacuated from Donetsk to Russia. Moscow has denied arming and supporting the rebels, but Strelkov's words indicate that Russia is serving as a kind of haven for the rebels.
Strelkov also denied his fighters had the weapons system needed to shoot down an airliner.
U.N.: Impartial investigation needed
The United Nations and other countries have repeatedly called for a cease-fire to allow investigators a safe working environment at the crash site, which the U.N. human rights chief said Monday could be the scene of a war crime.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that what happened "may amount to a war crime."
"It is imperative that a prompt, thorough, effective, independent and impartial investigation be conducted into this event," Pillay said.
As of Monday, 227 coffins bearing remains from the crashed plane had been sent to Netherlands, where forensic investigators were working to identify them.
Of the 298 people killed in the crash, 193 were Dutch, 43 were Malaysian and 27 were Australian.
More than 200 forensics experts from all over the world are working at a Dutch military base to identify the remains.
Cruise missile tests claim
Also on Monday, the United States accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing cruise missile tests, senior State Department and White House officials said.
"This is a very serious matter which we have attempted to address with Russia for some time now," said a senior State Department official.
Russia's suspected violation of the treaty was first reported Monday by The New York Times.
The violation was for cruise missile tests that date back to 2008, prompting an administration review as to whether the tests are in violation of the 1987 treaty between the United States and Russia banning medium-range missiles.
Officials told CNN that Washington had called for senior-level talks, but insisted the situation was not related to the violence in Ukraine.
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reported from Donetsk and Laura Smith-Spark wrote and reported in London. CNN's Ivan Watson, Michael Pearson, Susannah Palk, Alexander Felton, Mick Krever and Lindsay Isaac contributed to this report.