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Fighting erupts in Ukraine as crash investigators arrive

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[July 21, 2014]  By Anton Zverev and Peter Graff
 
 DONETSK Ukraine (Reuters) - Ukraine launched a military assault to break pro-Russian rebels' hold on the eastern city of Donetsk on Monday in the first major hostilities in the area since Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down last week.

As investigators arrived to inspect the bodies of hundreds of victims near the crash site, the fighting in Donetsk served as a reminder of the dangers they face working in a war zone.

Artillery fire sent plumes of smoke skywards near the Donetsk railway station, around 60 km (40 miles) from the crash site, in what the separatists said was an attempt by government forces to enter the city they seized in April.

Sergei Kavtaradze, of the rebels' self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, said at least four army tanks and armoured vehicles were trying to break through into the city. Reuters also saw two rebel tanks heading towards the railway station.

A Ukrainian military spokesman confirmed that the operation was in progress but would not comment on reports of troops entering Donetsk. "The active phase of the anti-terrorist operation is continuing. We are not about to announce any troop movements," Vladyslav Seleznyov said.

Donetsk is at the heart of a rebel uprising against rule by Kiev, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has vowed to retake the city as part of what Kiev calls its "anti-terrorist operation" against the separatists.
 


DISASTER VICTIMS

Against a background of international horror over the fate of the remains of the 298 victims of the Malaysia Airlines disaster, the first international investigators reached eastern Ukraine on Monday.

Three members of a Dutch disaster victims identification team arrived at a railway station near the crash site where rebels say 247 bodies have been stored in refrigerated wagons. About one third of the crash victims were Dutch.

The head of the team inspected the storage of the bodies in the rail cars and, despite an overwhelming stench of decomposition when the doors were opened, said it was fine.

"The storage of the bodies is of good quality," said Peter van Vliet, whose team went through the wagons dressed in surgical masks and rubber gloves.

Van Vliet said he had been told the train would be leaving the station at Torez later on Monday so that bodies can be taken to where they can be identified and repatriated. He could not say where it was going.

Ukrainian officials said as of Monday morning 272 bodies and 66 fragments of bodies had been found.

The shooting down of the airliner on Thursday has sharply deepened the Ukrainian crisis, in which separatists in the Russian-speaking east have been fighting government forces since protesters in Kiev forced out a pro-Moscow president and Russia annexed Crimea in March.

The United States and its allies have pointed the finger at the pro-Russian rebels and at Moscow itself over the downing of the plane. Russia has denied involvement and blamed the Ukrainian military for the disaster.

SHOCK TURNS TO ANGER

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid out what he called overwhelming evidence of Russian complicity in the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines plane, and expressed disgust at how the bodies of the victims had been treated at the crash site.
 


"Drunken separatists have been piling bodies into trucks and removing them from the site," he said on NBC television on Sunday. "What's happening is really grotesque and it is contrary to everything President Putin and Russia said they would do."

Television images of the rebel-controlled crash sites, where the remains of victims had lain decomposing in fields among their personal belongings, have turned initial shock and sorrow after Thursday's disaster into anger.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he had spoken to Putin for the first time about the disaster. At least 27 Australians were on the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Abbott said an Australian investigation team was in Kiev but had been unable to travel to the site. He said there had been some improvement with the Ukrainian government offering access.

"But there's still a hell of a long way to go before anyone could be satisfied with the way that site is being treated," Abbott said. "It's more like a garden cleanup than a forensic investigation. This is completely unacceptable."

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Emotions ran high in the Netherlands, where Prime Minister Mark Rutte told parliament his government's priority was to recover and identify the bodies of the passengers.

"It is clear that Russia must use her influence on the separatists to improve the situation on the ground," Rutte said.

ALL OPTIONS

"If in the coming days access to the disaster area remains inadequate, then all political, economic and financial options are on the table against those who are directly or indirectly responsible for that," he said.

Putin, in a televised address, said the downing of the airliner must not be used for political ends and urged separatists to allow international experts access to the crash site.

The U.N. Security Council is scheduled to vote on Monday on a resolution that would condemn the downing of the plane, and demands that those responsible be held accountable and that armed groups not compromise the integrity of the crash site.

European Union foreign ministers are due to meet on Tuesday and could announce more sanctions. Britain is pushing for tougher measures, and Italy said it expected a "strong and unified response".

But the EU is not expected to take tough action.

"Everything will depend on the determination of Dutch Prime Minister Rutte. As you can see, for now he is having difficulty in coming up with a clear Dutch position", said an EU diplomat.

"Other EU countries will be happy to help him, but the impulse must come from The Hague because they have the moral mandate to demand a resolute, firm reaction. Everything depends on that."



U.S. CASE

Ukraine said it was willing to hand over coordination of the crash investigation to international partners, perhaps led by the Netherlands, but Kiev was convinced the plane was shot down by "professionals".

"At the moment, we have no doubt that the plane was shot down. The reason for it - a missile strike most likely from a BUK-M1 (SA-11 radar guided missile system)," Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk told a news conference.

"It is clear that this system could not be operated by drunk pro-Russian terrorists. There were professional people."

Kerry said the United States had seen supplies moving into Ukraine from Russia in the last month, including a 150-vehicle convoy of armoured personnel carriers, tanks and rocket launchers given to the separatists.

It had also intercepted conversations about the transfer to separatists of the Russian radar-guided SA-11 missile system, which it blames for the Boeing 777's destruction.

(Additional reporting by Peter Graff in Hrabove, Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets and Elizabeth Piper in Kiev, Jim Loney, Doina Chiacu, Ayesha Rascoe and Mark Hosenball in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Allison Lampert in Montreal, Lincoln Feast and Jane Wardell in Sydney, William James in London and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by David Stamp and Philippa Fletcher)

[ 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.]

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