ROZSYPNE, Ukraine (AP) — International investigators got their first look Thursday at the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, finally reaching the site two weeks after a missile brought down the plane. Fighting between Ukrainian troops and separatist rebels raged around them but the investigators called their brief inspection visit a success.
Clashes along routes to the wreckage site had kept the delegation from reaching the area to find and retrieve bodies that have been lying in open fields where midsummer temperatures have hovered around 90 degrees (32 degrees Celsius) for the last several weeks.
But the investigators were allowed early Thursday afternoon through a checkpoint leading to the crash site at the village of Rozsypne by a rifle-toting militiaman who then fired a warning shot to prevent reporters from accompanying the convoy.
The militiaman, who gave his name only as Sergei, said there was still fighting in Rozsypne as the Ukrainian army continues an offensive to take back swatches of territory from the rebels.
The team of police and forensic experts from the Netherlands and Australia spent about an hour inspecting the scene before returning to their base in the rebel held city of Donetsk base before the evening.
Australian Federal Police commander Brian McDonald said the visit was only a preliminary survey ahead of more comprehensive recovery work of bodies and victims’ personal belongings.
“We had a quick inspection of the site. Today was more about an assessment of the site than it was of a search,” said McDonald, who was in police uniform.
As many as 80 bodies are still at the site, said Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from Ukraine.
Ukrainian national security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said a “day of quiet” was declared Thursday in response to a call for a cease-fire from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
But Associated Press reporters near the crash site confirmed Thursday that clashes were still taking place in the immediate vicinity of where the Boeing 777 came down.
Reporters who attempted to reach the crash site by another route were warned by residents that some nearby roads have been mined.
AP reporters passing through Hrabove, another village around which fragments of the plane remain uncollected, saw one mortar fall on a spot about 150 meters (160 yards) from their car and heard two more hit nearby. It was not immediately clear who fired the mortars or what the intended target was though Lysenko put the blame on rebels.
Thursday’s drive took the convoy of four investigators and eight officials from the Organization for Security and Cooperation Donetsk through the town of Debaltseve, which was retaken earlier this week by the government, and later back into rebel territory.
Armored personnel carriers and light armored trucks bearing the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian national flag could be seen in and around Debaltseve and residents at one entrance to the town walked along a pontoon erected over the remains of a blown-up bridge.
The OSCE said on its Twitter account that the team observed a moment of silence upon reaching the scene in remembrance of the victims.
And Alexander Hug, deputy head of the OSCE mission to Ukraine, provided no details on what was seen during the visit but called but called it a success because officials “managed to access the site without any incident.”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s office in a statement urged rebels to comply with a cease-fire spanning an area 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) around the crash site.
A delegation from Russia’s state aviation body said Thursday it also hoped to visit the site, an agency spokesman said.
Sergei Izvolsky told the AP that a delegation of Russian specialists from Rosaviatsiya was due in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on Thursday to work with Australian and Dutch investigators and examine the wreckage of the plane. Representatives of the Dutch and Ukrainian commissions would not comment on the arrival of Russian officials.
The European Union and the United States have formed a united front in accusing Russia of fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine by supplying weapons to rebels.
In Brussels, the EU formally adopted economic sanctions designed to pressure Russia to help bring about a peaceful solution to the Ukraine crisis. The measures, to be published in the EU’s Official Journal later Thursday, will go into effect Friday.
Approved in principle by the EU’s 28 member nations on Tuesday, the sanctions will restrict Russia’s access to European capital markets, slap an embargo on the import and export of arms with Russia, ban the sale of dual-use goods and technology that might be of value to the Russian military. They will also halt the sale to Russia of equipment or technology destined for deep-water or Arctic oil drilling and exploration, as well as drilling for shale oil.
In Donetsk, the rebel’s acting political leader Vladimir Antyufeyev denied on Thursday that the separatist movement was being assisted by Moscow.
“Neither I nor (rebel military commander Igor Girkin) knows or has met anybody from the Russian presidential administration,” said Antyufeyev, and Russian national.
Ukraine’s parliament, meanwhile, voted Thursday not to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
Yatsenyuk had said last week he was resigning after two parties left the coalition supporting him and parliament balked at passing laws he said were essential to fund the country’s war against pro-Russian separatists.
While the confidence vote ensures some continuity in the country’s turbulent political system, Poroshenko has said he wants new parliamentary elections held soon.
The current legislature is a leftover of the period of rule of former President Viktor Yanukovych, who was overthrown in February. Before Yanukovych’s ouster, parliament was dominated by his Party of Regions, which has since lost many of its members to defection.
Associated Press writers David McHugh and Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine, John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels and Yuras Karmanau in Donetsk, Ukraine contributed to this report.