MH17 investigator convoy held up by renewed gunfire

MH17 investigator convoy held up by renewed gunfire

The Australian and Dutch investigators charged with retrieving the bodies and effects of the victims of the MH17 air disaster have once again been held off reaching the crash site by renewed gunfire and shelling in the ongoing battle between Ukrainian and rebel forces.

Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe are investigating outgoing mortar fire from fields that the investigation team was to search this morning

Australian Federal Police and their Dutch counterparts search a field for MH17 victims and belongings on the outskirts of Rassypnoye.

Australian Federal Police and their Dutch counterparts search a field for MH17 victims and belongings on the outskirts of Rassypnoye.

Photo: Kate Geraghty

We are on the outskirts of Rassypnoye, the so-called cockpit village.

As we approached from the north today, the convoy ground to a halt as the sound of outgoing mortar fire rippled on the morning breeze.

Pro-Russian rebels in the village of Rassypnoye.

Pro-Russian rebels in the village of Rassypnoye.

Photo: Kate Geraghty

Overheard were two vollies of 8 or 10 sounds each. But it was difficult to be precise about the location of the launchers, in terms of their proximity to the Australian/Dutch convoy because they were obscured by a dense line of trees.

Minutes earlier the investigators has passed a Ukrainian armed column heading north – possibly a target for rebel fire. Smoke billowed towards the northern sky, from the direction taken by the Ukrainians.

Out-going fire might imply minimal risk for the investigators’ convoy, but in war, the seat of any outgoing fire becomes an immediate target for the other side’s outgoing fire.

The investigators - the usual 100 or so Australians and Dutch, plus a small new contingent of Malaysians - were biding their time on a road while OSCE conflict monitors investigated the firing which seemed very close to the MH17 debris-strewn fields that were to be the focus of Monday's search for the remains of passengers and crew and their possessions.

Dutch police spokesman Dennis Mulles told Fairfax Media: “We’re waiting to hear from the OSCE, we need a couple of hours at this site, so a decision on proceeding will depend on if and when we get the OK."

“We’ll get there; we don’t know the timetable.

“It’s very disappointing because we’re here to do one thing – to bring back the remains and the possessios. All the time we waste here is so precious,"

Asked if the investigators were safe at their roadside holding spot, Mr Muller explained that the Dutch all travelled in armoured vehichles imported from Holland for the recovery mission – but the Australians travelled in unprotected vehichles acquired locally.

Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar, who was travelling with the convoy for the first time, was clearly frustrated by the delay.

Standing in the shade of a tree, as investigators lolled around to escape the midday heat, he told Fairfax Media: "Today we have done nothing - we're still waiting for negotiations ... I hope they will allow us to do our task."

At 11.30 local time, the convoy was still stuck by the road as firing commenced on the opposite side of the road from where the earlier mortar fire was heard.

This time, the barage included about two dozen missiles, probably the ubiquitous and highly inaccurate Grad missiles, of which both sides reportedly have huge stocks.

On Sunday, there were similar but closer vollies, from about 2 kilometres away, at the same time of day. But the convoy proceeded to the search area and got on with its business.

By 2pm, the OSCE admitted defeat, abandoning the day's plan and advising the investigators to head for another area secure passage could not be negotiated to their preferred next destination. but the way was open to a third area, between the villages of Rassypnoye and Petrapavlovska.

However, the fate of that option hung in the air even before the convoy could get underway, there were new loud vollies in the area.

The convoy is stuck on a hillside near Rassypnoye, with expansive views over the crash site.

Paul McGeough

Paul McGeough is chief foreign correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald.

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