MH17 investigators start at crash site
International experts begin recovery work at MH17’s crash site in eastern Ukraine, despite ongoing clashes in the area between government forces and pro-Russian rebels.PT0M48S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-3d0c6 620 349 August 2, 2014
Donetsk: The Australian and Dutch air crash investigators made a dramatic switch in their plans early Friday – instead of dispatching 60 of their number to the MH17 crash site, they packed their bags and left town.
In a sensible response to the near impossible logistics of a site visit by just two of them – more than 11 hours on the road, with all the insecurity of a war zone for just 85 minutes on the ground – they were bussed to a small town, Soledar, about 95 kilometres north of the crash site.
Spending just 85 minutes at the site on Thursday was an emotional salve to the investigator’s frustration at not being able to get there all week. But it also underscored the near impossibility of the investigators being able to work in a war zone. Canberra and the other capitals involved in this tragedy should be working on shaming Kiev into reinstating, and observing, the 40-kilometre combat exclusion zone it initially proposed around the site.
Head of Australian Federal Police mission Commander Brian McDonald (left), OSCE's Alexander Hug (centre), and a Dutch police officer arrive back from the MH17 site on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
Moving house reduced the size of the Australian Federal Police team that was dispatched to the crash site on Friday. On Thursday team leader Commander Brian McDonald suggested that as many as 60 might attend on Friday, but an initial morning foray included 38. The Dutch were hopeful of sending similar numbers.
A 20-vehicle Australian-Dutch convoy of crash investigators arrived at the MH17 crash site shortly before noon.
Mostly 4WDs, it also included a bus filled with Australian Federal Police officers and an ambulance.
Pro-Russia rebel sniper 'Angel' at a checkpoint on the outskirts Shakhtersk on Thursday. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Rebel gunmen were at the scene in hot and windy conditions, but in contrast to the intense fighting across the district on Thursday, the investigators were greeted by a sound that is strange in these parts – the silence of no combat guns.
On arriving at the Garbovka section of the crash site, where big sections of the mid and rear fuselage landed and less that 500 metres from where the engines created an inferno, the investigators set up headquarters in a nearby poultry farm - under the watchful eye of their armed rebel escort.
They said that the site would be divided into sections that would be systematically searched - for human remains and personal possessions.
Teachers Olga Korostilenko (left) and Marina Tiheeva fleeing the shelling in Shakhtersk on Thursday. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Two grad missiles exploded about two kilometres from the site as the investigators established their base, from which an initial deployment of 40 AFP members were working.
At about 1.30pm, three groups of mostly Australians were observed referring to maps as they searched different areas of the site.
A further complicationhas been an announcement by the Russian government aviation agency that it would send a team of experts to Ukraine, to do its own investigation. Moscow is accused of being an accomplice to the shooting down of MH17 to the extent that it provided the missile system and, possibly, advisers to train rebels in how to use it.
Sergey, 42, waits for fuel in a queue at a petrol station at Zhdanovka town in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic on Thursday. Photo: Kate Geraghty
On Friday, Ukrainian media reported that 20 government paratroopers had been killed by mortar and tank fire from rebels near the town of Shakhtarsk.
Heavy fighting around the 50 square-kilometre site on Thursday - and across it before and after the Australian investigator visit - revealed a 24-hour ceasefire announced by Kiev to be a mirage - both sides hammered each other throughout the day. Both Kiev and the Russian-backed separatists accused each other of ignoring a ceasefire that was announced as a gesture to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who demanded that fighting stop around the crash site.
As Fairfax Media observed the site from high ground in the coal-mining village of Kirovskyoe, north-west of the site, at least seven separate battles threw up billowing smoke and dust. Some of the firefights set ablaze the fields from which the remains of the passengers and crew - 38 of them from Australia - are yet to be recovered.
Members of Ukrainian self-defence battalion "Donbass" near the town of Pervomaysk on Thursday. Photo: Reuters
While the convoy was out, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop revealed that a Dutch assessment of the contents of what became known as the "train of death", which shipped victims' bodies out of the crash area, had concluded that as many as 80 bodies still had to be recovered from the site.
Still in Kiev, she tweeted optimistically: "At last work begins to bring our people home."
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
On his return from the site to Donetsk on Thursday, Commander McDonald, set out his objective for Friday: "To get out there to get on site and spend as much time as we possibly can, maximise the time on the task and get the job done. It's a complex situation out there and we just need to make sure we're making the most of our time.
''We had a quick inspection of the site. Today was more about an assessment of the site than a search.''
His colleague, Commander Mark Harrison, said: "We were fortunate to have both the Dutch and Australians forensic experts with us … we were able to make an assessment of the best way to take the search and recovery aspects of that forward over the next days and week."
Asked if he was confident that the team could achieve its objective, Commander McDonald said: "It's given me confidence that there is work to be done at site, we need to spent spend [more] time at the site, we need to recover items and give the best for the families that have really suffered through this.
"We've got about I think 200 men in country. We can only use so many at the site so we have to manage that as we go along. That will be managed on a daily basis, obviously try to get as many on scene as many as we can."
The local chief of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Alexander Hug, said that the three-vehicle convoy arrived on site just before 2pm which was two weeks, almost to the hour, since what was believed to be a rebel-fired missile forced the crash of the Malaysia Airways Boeing 777.
Mr Hug spoke of the deal under which the convoy travelled as the outcome of local negotiations, which were quite separate from the "day of quiet" announced in Kiev – "the ceasefire was there for our presence and as soon as we left the site, the incentive [to stop fighting] disappeared."
OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw confirmed that after observing a brief memorial silence on arriving, the experts "went deep" into the site – and they did encounter human remains. "They now have a better sense of the time and investigative infrastructure they'll need – like cadaver dogs," he said.
In the wake of claims by officials in Kiev that the rebels had placed landmines on the site, there were reports that news locals had warned reporters that a road had been mined. But Mr Bociurkiw said: "We had no verification of land mines – we asked questions about risks and the rebels said 'no', and they accompanied us."
Villagers told Fairfax Media that Ukrainian army columns, one numbering 146 tanks, APCs and other machines, moved in from the north at dawn and were attempting to push the rebels south and west.
At times the rebels seemed in disarray. A bus shrouded in bed sheets with red crosses painted on was seen racing towards Shakhtersk, where a rebel sniper, who gave his name as "Angel", said 30 or 40 people had been killed or wounded in fighting overnight Wednesday.
In signs of panic buying, locals at Zhdanivka were queued down the road for petrol. Men on scooters held jerry cans between their legs, but were rationed to 10 litres each. Rebel fighters and their vehicles are allowed to jump the queue.
Mother-of-two Tatiana Martinova, 32, pleaded as she watched the struggle for control of the crash site from Kirovskyoe: "I want this war to stop."
Village streets and the fields were deserted. Harvesting had ground to a halt as all stayed indoors to avoid the fighting.
A truckie evacuated children from the village near where MH17's cockpit landed, yelling as he passed, "everything is on fire!''
Another motorist slowed, yelling through the open window of his battered vehicle: ''We've got to the get to hell out of here."
In the face of seeming advances by the Ukrainian forces, it still had not dawned on some villagers that perhaps they no longer lived in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic.
"No one has come to see. Yesterday we lived peacefully in the Donetsk People's Republic," one local said. "We think we're still in the republic," said another as he sipped a beer at a cafe in Orlova-Ivanivka.