Heavy shelling around the crash site of downed Malaysian flight MH17 forced Dutch and Australian police to scrap a planned trip on Sunday, as 13 people including two children were killed during clashes in insurgent-held east Ukraine.
The unarmed contingent of law enforcement officers were due to head to the location ten days after the disaster following a deal with rebels aimed at allowing a long-delayed probe to go ahead.
But international observers overseeing the trip had to abruptly ditch their plans after clashes shattered a supposed truce between government forces and insurgents in the area around the site, where some remains of the 298 victims still lie decomposing under the summer sun.
"The security situation on the way to the site and on the site itself is unacceptable for our unarmed observer mission," he told reporters in the insurgent stronghold Donetsk, the biggest city in the region.
An AFP photographer heard artillery bombardments just a kilometre from the rebel-held town of Grabove next to the crash site and saw black smoke billowing into the sky.
Terrified local residents were fleeing and checkpoints controlled by separatist fighters were abandoned.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin accused local pro-Russian rebels of staging the violence to prevent international experts from reaching the crash site.
"Terrorists back to their normal outrageous practice: they don't allow OSCE (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) monitors to access the #MH17 site claiming Ukraine army is fighting nearby," Klimkin said on Twitter. "Their argument is fake. Ukraine is committed to its unilateral ceasefire within a 40km zone."
Earlier, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said 49 officers from the Netherlands and Australia -- which together lost some 221 citizens in the crash -- were due at the scene Sunday and that there would be "considerably more on site in coming days."
That came after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he had reached an agreement with the pro-Russian insurgents controlling the site to allow the police deployment.
"I hope that this agreement... will ensure security on the ground, so the international investigators can conduct their work," Razak said, adding that 68 Malaysian police personnel would leave Kuala Lumpur for the crash site on Wednesday.
So far investigators have been able to visit the site only sporadically because of security concerns, even though a truce had been called in the immediate area around the site by both the Kiev forces and pro-Russian separatists.
Ignoring safety warnings, an Australian couple had travelled to the scene without any escort Saturday, saying they were fulfilling a promise to their only child that they would be there.
"She was full of life," said Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski of their 25-year-old daughter Fatima, an aerospace engineering student.
13 dead in Gorlivka
Fighting was raging elsewhere as the Ukrainian army pushes on with its offensive to retake the vital industrial east.
Local authorities said 13 people including two children aged one and five were killed on Sunday in heavy fighting in rebel holdout Gorlivka, about 45 kilometres to the north of Donetsk, which has a population of about a quarter of a million.
"As a result of military actions in Gorlivka 13 people have died, among them two children of one and five," the Donetsk regional administration said in a statement, adding that operations by medical teams in the crucial insurgent base, a city of some 250,000 around 45 kilometres (28 miles) north of Donetsk, were hampered by "constant shooting".
An eyewitness told AFP that mortar fire rained down on the centre of the city after rebels warned that there would be "intense firing".
"In the park I saw a man, a woman and a child dead on the ground," a local resident identified as Ludmila said.
"Near the railway station a shop was destroyed, while the bus station was also on fire and dead people were lying around," she said.
Ukraine's military accused insurgent fighters of firing Grad rockets at residential blocks in the city "aiming to bring discredit to the Ukrainian army and frighten the non-combatants".
A rebel commander from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic told a press conference that the situation in Gorlivka was "fine for the moment".
Seized by separatists in April, Gorlivka has been the headquarters for a hard core of insurgent militants, including an important rebel commander linked by Ukrainian security services to the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Mining hub Donetsk itself was also subject to heavy bombardment throughout the night, some of it apparently unguided Grad rocket fire.
Speaking from Donetsk, FRANCE 24 reporter Luke Brown said the city of one million inhabitants was "currently a ghost town" where a "sense of encirclement" could be felt.
"We do get the impression that government forces are really ramping up their pressure in and around this city," he said.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
Date created : 2014-07-27