Violence around the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 forced Australian and Dutch investigators to remain in their hotel on Sunday, despite Malaysia announcing it had reached a deal for unfettered access.
MH17: experts abandon crash site
International experts abandon their plans to go to the site where a Malaysian airliner crashed because of fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian troops in the area.
At one stage, the Australian Federal Police mission, headed by Commander Brian McDonald, was seen in deep negotiation with the rebel fighters in Donetsk who regularly escort foreign experts to and from the crash site, about 100 kilometres to the east.
Alexander Hug, deputy leader of an Organisation for Security and Cooperation Europe team that provides operational assistance to foreign experts on the ground, told reporters: “We were planning to go to one of the sites, but security at the site and on the road to it is not acceptable ... not appropriate for an unarmed mission such as this.”
Flanked by Mr McDonald and his Dutch counterpart, Mr Hug said the investigators were being guided by the separatist fighters.
“We have had indications of fighting and we can’t take the risk,” he said.
The AFP released a statement late on Sunday confirming that the mission had been postponed.
''Due to intensified fighting both on the road to the crash site, as well as at the crash site itself, a joint decision was taken by the Australian and Dutch team . . . not to attempt access to the site on this day,'' the statement said.
The statement said the investigation team would attempt to go to the site only when it was safe to do so.
''The AFP and our Dutch colleagues will continue to monitor the situation with a view to commencing this search as soon as possible,'' the statement said.
The Ukrainian government had announced a 40 kilometre exclusion zone around the site, in which it had intimated that it would not pursue the Russian-backed rebel forces.
But when Fairfax Media drove through the site on Saturday, artillery bombardments could be heard.
On Sunday morning, media crews arriving at rebel checkpoints on the road from Donetsk to the site were turned back.
Mr Hug said he was unable to comment on ‘‘deals made by other parties’’ when asked about the deal announced in Kuala Lumpur.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said overnight on Sunday that Australia was still determined to send unarmed police to the MH17 crash site despite the fresh violence in the area.
''I would have rathered the mission went ahead today but the fighting has intensified so the correct decision was taken not to go,'' Mr Bishop said in Amsterdam before flying to Kiev with her Dutch counterpart Frans Timmermans.
''It sets us back a day but we are determined to fulfil the promise that we made that we would bring our people home.''
Asked if she was concerned about Ukraine's military action, Ms Bishop said: "We always knew there was a conflict between the Ukrainian military and the separatists."
"We had hoped that there would be an exclusion zone," she said.
"But it appears that fighting has in fact taken place within the exclusion and around Donetsk today. It's a very fluid situation."
Earlier, Mr Abbott said 11 unarmed Australian police would go to the crash site to secure evidence in what he conceded was a “risky mission”.
“Our objective is to get in, get cracking and get out,” Mr Abbott said.
“This is a risky mission, no doubt about that, but all the professional advice I have is that the safest way to conduct it is unarmed, as part of a police-led humanitarian mission.”
Mr Abbott said advice from his special envoy on the ground in Ukraine, retired air chief marshal Angus Houston, was that going into the war-torn area outside Donetsk was “eminently doable”.
“I’ve had advice from the Office of National Assessments that while there are risks, they can be mitigated and managed,” he said.
AFP Commissioner Tony Negus agreed that the safest way to recover bodies and conduct an air crash investigation in what is expected to be a two- to three-week window is unarmed and without military personnel on site.
Mr Abbott said on Sunday that he had been in contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine in the past 24 hours. He had also had further communications with the prime ministers of the Netherlands and Malaysia.
Mr Abbott was at pains to stress that the police-led mission had “nothing to do with the politics of eastern Europe”.
‘‘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,” he said.
The hostilities between Ukrainian forces and rebels show no sign of quieting. Government troops fought rebels in Horlivka, just kilometres outside Donetsk, home to the separatist-dubbed ‘‘Donetsk People’s Republic.’’
The danger did not keep Perth couple Jerzy Dyczynski and Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski from becoming the first family or friends to visit the crash site on Saturday, after the loss of their daughter Fatima, 25.
But the prospect of urban warfare underscores the volatility of eastern Ukraine.
Unreleased data from a black box retrieved from the wreckage show findings consistent with the plane’s fuselage being hit multiple times by shrapnel from a missile explosion.
‘‘It did what it was designed to do,’’ a European air safety official said. ‘‘Bring down airplanes.’’