Kiev: Australian investigators are part of an international team that has for the first time reached the crash site of Malaysia Airline flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine, as Australian Federal Police officers were cleared to bring firearms into Ukraine.
On Thursday night Australian time, Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop tweeted that the team had made it to the site.
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MH17 investigators gain access to crash site
A team of Dutch and Australian investigators access the MH17 crash site as Ukraine agrees to halt military operations in the area.
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.— Julie Bishop (@JulieBishopMP) July 31, 2014
''Monitors reach MH17 crash site for 1st time in almost week, accompanied by 4 Dutch, Australian experts. Used new route to access,'' the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's monitoring mission in charge of facilitating the international probe wrote on Twitter.
But in a sign of the continuing insecurity, a team of journalists following the convoy heard loud blasts just a few kilometres away from the site and saw black smoke rising from a village close to where some of the plane wreckage is lying.
AFP officers will be allowed to fly Australian sniffer dogs to the eastern European nation after the Ukraine Parliament - the Rada - voted in support of the planned Dutch-led investigation.
The Rada voted 324 - 32 in favour of allowing the international effort to access the site outside Donetsk even as war rages across ground where up to 100 bodies from the downed 747 are believed to be lying in the open.
Fighting along the route to the wreckage site between government troops and pro-Russian separatist rebels had for several days kept the delegation from reaching the area.
An AP journalist at the scene on Thursday said it appeared to be under the control of separatist rebel fighters.
Police and forensic experts from the Netherlands and Australia are expected to initially focus their efforts on retrieving bodies still on the site and collect victims' belongings.
It remains unclear exactly how many bodies remain and what condition they are in after being exposed for so long to the elements.
Speaking outside the Rada after the vote, Ms Bishop said: "Our presence here is legal" but reaffirmed that AFP officers still intended to go in unarmed.
‘‘Our convoy will not be armed. It’s a police-led humanitarian mission,'' she said.
Ms Bishop said a small "reconnaissance mission" was under way on Thursday. "We are hearing hour by hour of their progress and if they are able to make the site today.
Then they will be able to assess the situation and return, hopefully safely, to our base and then start a full convoy tomorrow of all the necessary investigators and experts who must be on that site without further delay so that we can search the site, retrieve the bodies that we know are still there, and remains, and gather the evidence that is required for this independent and impartial investigation into how this plane was downed and who is responsible for it," she said.
Ms Bishop said the green light to carry arms was an "insurance policy".
"If necessary, only if necessary, both the Dutch and the Australian personnel can bring arms into the country. But we are not taking arms on to the site. Our convoy will not be armed," she said. "This agreement means that, for example, we can bring our sniffer dogs in.
"There could be around 80 bodies on the site and that is why the Netherlands, who lost 194 people, Australia lost 38 citizens, we are determined to access the site so that we can collect the remains with some dignity and return them to the Netherlands where they can be identified and then the grieving families across the world who lost 298 people can have some closure."
Earlier in the day investigators had been forced to abandon their mission for a fourth consecutive time because of fighting.
Ukraine's military announced on Thursday it would stop its brutal offensive on pro-Russian rebels at the site for 24 hours, to allow investigators to reach the area.
But fighting was continuing around the crash site despite the reports of the day-long pause in fighting.
On the hilltops surrounding the site, locals watched the sky fill with smoke as seven or more battles broke up the scene in front of them. There were no signs of the ceasefire announced on Thursday night.
It appears the Ukrainian army moved in from the north at dawn and are attempting to push the rebels south and west. There was chaos on the rebel front lines - a bus shrouded in bed sheets with red crosses painted on raced toward Shakhtersk.
Outside the town, a rebel fighter named Angel said 30 or 40 people had been killed or wounded in fighting overnight.
On the road towards the crash site, villages and fields were deserted. Harvesting ground to a halt as everyone stayed indoors avoiding the fighting.
Earlier in the day Prime Minister Tony Abbott said: "We will not readily be deterred here. We are determined."
Mr Abbott also announced that a national memorial service would be held in Melbourne on August 7. The multi-faith event will be at St Patrick's Cathedral.
with Paul McGeough, AAP, AFP, AP