European monitors reach MH17 crash site after Ukraine calls cease-fire
KIEV, Ukraine — International monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reached the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site on Thursday for the first time in almost a week, the OSCE mission said.
The OSCE team was accompanied by four Dutch and Australian experts, the mission said via Twitter. It used a new route to access the site.
Fighting between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russia rebels near the crash site has repeatedly prevented international monitors and investigators from reaching the huge debris field, where human remains and victims’ belongings still lie scattered.
Having finally reached the crash site, the OSCE team observed a moment’s silence to mark two weeks to the day since the plane plummeted to Earth near the Russian border in rural eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.
Their arrival at the scene came as Ukraine’s military announced a one-day cease-fire Thursday to allow international experts full access.
The statement issued Thursday by the Ukrainian Counter-Terrorist Operation’s press center said the military would not take offensive action but will “respond to direct attacks.”
The statement also accused the rebels of continued violence, including firing Grad rocket systems. “This demonstrates their attitude towards Ukraine and the international community,” it said.
The United States and others say Russia has provided arms to rebels in eastern Ukraine, including heavy weapons such as a missile system like the one believed used to down the Malaysian airliner.
Russia and the rebel fighters deny involvement in the shooting down of MH17.
‘Long walk towards justice’
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak met Thursday in the Netherlands to discuss the international response to the crash.
Rutte said the Netherlands and Malaysia share three priorities in dealing with the crash: the repatriation of the victims and their personal belongings, “obtaining clarity” on the cause of the accident and making sure the perpetrators are brought to justice. He said that repatriation of the victims was the highest priority.
Najib also called for a cessation of hostilities by both sides around the crash site and “full and unfettered” access to the area.
With such access, authorities will be able “to find out what happened to MH17″ and will be able “to achieve justice for the victims and their families,” he said.
“We ask that all sides respect the lives lost, and the integrity of the site, so that the investigation may proceed. The long walk towards justice begins with this step.”
The Netherlands, whose citizens made up about two-thirds of those killed in the crash, is leading the international investigation efforts.
Rutte said 68 police officers from Malaysia had arrived in Kiev, Ukraine, and will try to reach the crash site area. In addition, 24 Malaysian experts are aiding in efforts to identify victims’ remains in the Netherlands, he said.
After their statements, Najib signed the book of condolences for the Dutch victims. Malaysia suffered the loss of 43 nationals in the crash, including 15 crew and two infants.
The Ukrainian parliament is holding an extraordinary closed-door session Thursday during which lawmakers are expected to vote on a motion to authorize Dutch, Australian and Malaysian investigators to operate around the crash site.
In the words of a Dutch diplomat, the parliamentary session would formalize an agreement reached between the Ukrainian and Dutch governments on Monday.
Australia, which lost 38 citizens and permanent residents, has sent more than 200 personnel to Europe to help with investigation and recovery efforts, most of them police officers.
A Russian delegation is also in Kiev and hopes to access the MH17 crash site on Thursday, according to a spokesman for the Russian Civil Aviation Authority, Sergey Izvolsky.
The Russian delegation, made up of of three experts, will examine the aircraft wreckage on site in conjunction with members of the international investigation commission, he said.
They will also provide the commission with material it has requested, including radar data from the Russian Defense Ministry showing a Ukrainian fighter jet flying close to MH17, according to Izvolsky.
Ukrainian officials warn of mines
On Wednesday, OSCE monitors and a 50-strong team of Dutch and Australian investigators judged that the fighting made it too dangerous to travel to the crash site for a fourth straight day.
In another roadblock, Ukrainian officials claimed that “terrorists” — the term it uses to describe rebels — had set up firing positions and laid mines on the access road to the crash site.
No separatists, inspectors or Ukrainian soldiers were seen at the crash site. Instead, the wreckage lay in eerie silence, while smoke from weapons fire rose in the distance.Shrapnel holes were visible in the cockpit’s remains and the site still reeked of jet fuel and the stench of decay.