Fleeing residents of Shakhtersk run towards buses provided by pro-Russian rebels after heavy shelling. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Shakhtersk, Ukraine: They are stoking the fires of war on the steppes of the old Soviet Union, and atop the blaze is Tony Abbott's promise to repatriate the remains of the 38 Australians who perished in the crash of flight MH17.
The Prime Minister is personally overseeing Operation Bring Them Home, but his Dutch allies are signalling that might not be possible any more.
On Monday, Dutch police chief Gerard Bouman told the Netherlands parliament: "I’d love to give a guarantee that all the remains will come back, but... I believe the chances are not very good that we will get [them] all."
Dimitriy Gorozhaninov mourns for four members of his family, who died in a Ukrainian artillery barrage in Petrovskiy. Photo: Kate Geraghty
And frustration was apparent in the demeanour of AFP mission chief Brian McDonald as he stood, face buried in his hands, as officials of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe announced the abandonment of yet another bid to get the Australian and Dutch investigators to the site on Monday.
Ukrainian and rebel forces are locked in an intense struggle for control of the crash site and loud explosions could be heard in this town, 30 kilometres from the crash site, as panic gripped the population. Buses were lining up to evacuate hundreds of refugees – old men, women and children. Sirens could be heard and cars with the word ‘'children'’ were speeding westward out of town.
Tuesday became the third day running that the investigators’ access to the site was blocked by renewed fighting.
Head of Australian Federal Police mission Commander Brian McDonald touches his face after returning to Donetsk. Photo: Sergei Karpukhin
The fighting became so intense overnight that their OSCE convoy didn’t bother leaving their Donetsk headquarters, at the Radisson Park Inn.
Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has been praised for shrewd diplomacy in winning the support of Moscow, chief sponsor of the rebels, for a unanimous decision by the UN Security Council on the crash, by reiterating Canberra’s determination to "bring ‘em home" at the same time as she refused to take sides in the separatist war.
But if she is running the same strategy in her negotiations with the Kiev government, it is not working.
Initially, Kiev ordered its forces to leave a 40-kilometre exclusion zone around the crash site.
Officials have not publicly explained why they are pressing their attack on the rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions at a time when foreign access to the crash site is so vital, but a spokesman for the Ukrainian Security Council, Andriy Lysenko, claimed that Kiev was trying to force rebels out of the crash site without conducting military operations in the immediate area.
Alluding to a Dutch estimate that as many as 100 bodies are still to be recovered, the deputy chief of the OSCE mission, Alexander Hug, added: “The longer that these body parts remain out there, the greater is the risk that they will disappear.”
The distressing reality for grieving families in the West is that differing cultural sensitivities and combat imperatives have kicked in – both sides in this full-blown separatist war have been hardened by the loss of hundreds of their own and the crash site is strategically placed in relation to towns, including Donetsk, the capture of which will dictate the outcome of the war.
Donetsk has become a ghost town as people flee or remain indoors amid widespread speculation that an all-out Ukrainian assault on what is the seat of separatist power is imminent.
On the outskirts of the city, at Petrovskiy, on Monday, Fairfax Media encountered residents preparing a bomb shelter and a grief-stricken Dimitriy Gorozhaninov, who was mourning four members of his family. They died in a Ukrainian artillery barrage in the days before a missile strike caused flight MH17 to crash.
When asked about the Australian determination to recover the remains of the dead, rebel checkpoint leader Aleksandr Levchenko shrugged his shoulders. “There’s a war – but as soon as the fighting is over the foreigners will be able to collect the dead.”
But speaking at his hilltop post halfway between Donetsk, the regional centre and the crash site, he told Fairfax Media: “Kiev refuses to respect its own exclusion zone and I understand that Australia wants to get the bodies – we would feel the same way about our dead. They should have a dignified burial according to their many national customs.”
Both the rebels and Moscow formally deny that Russia is supplying the rebels, but there were reports on Tuesday of a new influx of volunteer fighters and a supply convoy crossing the border in recent days.
“The enemy is throwing everything it has into the battle to complete encirclement of the DNR,” rebel commander and Russian volunteer Igor Strelkov told journalists during a press conference at his Donetsk bunker on Monday, using the abbreviated form of “Donetsk People's Republic”.