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Tracing a perilous route to MH17 crash site

AFP

People wait to cross a damaged bridge on July 31, 2014 near the village of Debaltseve, eastern UkrainePeople wait to cross a damaged bridge on July 31, 2014 near the village of Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine

People wait to cross a damaged bridge on July 31, 2014 near the village of Debaltseve, eastern UkrainePeople wait to cross a damaged bridge on July 31, 2014 near the village of Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine

With hazards including blown-up railway bridges and unexploded shells and mines, the route chosen by international investigators to reach the MH17 crash site on Thursday was fraught with risks.

The government in Kiev had announced a "day of silence" to let the investigators work, but at one point a group of journalists following their convoy through rebel-controlled territory found the air filled with rapid bursts of shelling.

The team, consisting of Dutch and Australian experts as well as monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), left the rebel-held city of Donetsk early Thursday morning moving in a convoy of three white SUVs clearly marked with the OSCE logo.

Their round trip charted a wide arc of around 500 kilometres (300 miles), despite the crash site being only some 60 kilometres (40 miles) from their base in Donetsk. Much of the journey took them through idyllic countryside with fields of sunflowers and farmers making hay.

But the sense of danger was ever-present. Most of the handful of cars on the road carried signs to stop them being fired on -- either a piece of paper saying "children" on the windscreen or simply a white cloth hung from the window.

The convoy travelled down an eerily empty highway that had to be negotiated by driving across the grassy central reservation and weaving past rebel dugouts reinforced with logs and sandbags as well as dodging a shell lying on the tarmac.

It came across a railway bridge blown up in early July as a cargo train passed over. The train is still there.

In a long avenue of poplars, someone had hung up a wooden sign on one of the trees saying "mines".

A second exploded railway bridge had to be driven over. Sheets of metal had been laid over the gap to allow a car to pass over. Over the edge was a mess of smashed concrete.

The convoy passed into Ukrainian territory and soldiers in armoured vehicles drove past, some of them camouflaged with leaves; others flying the flag.

The OSCE paused en route at a makeshift Ukrainian army base in the small town of Debaltseve 75 kilometres (50 miles) from Donetsk where soldiers were staying in a roadside restaurant called Triumph with smashed windows and no electricity.

The monitors pored over maps, refuelled on coffee and ordered journalists to keep their distance and refrain from filming.

- Watch out for mines -

The Ukrainian army had several tanks and armoured vehicles parked in full view as the tarmac melted in the heat. One armoured vehicle had the slogan "God is with us" scrawled on the side.

"Our morale is good. We want to be able to go home," said one of the Ukrainian soldiers, Roman, from Dnepropetrovsk region.

Looking at a map of the region, he pointed out which towns were still occupied by rebels.

"We're close. We don't have any road back -- we're aiming for victory," he said.

After several hours the OSCE convoy carried on down a highway that eventually leads to Rostov-on-Don in Russia.

They came to a halt at the first rebel-held checkpoint around 10 kilometres (six miles) from the crash site at Grabove.

Fighters allowed through the OSCE convoy after some minutes but initially barred the journalists. One even fired his Kalashnikov in the air while another shouted: "We have an order!"

Journalists turned into a nearby village to ask if there was another way round: "Sorry, but it is maybe mined," a local man said of the only other road.

But on a second attempt to travel through the checkpoint, the journalists were waved through.

Minutes later, artillery blasts shook the air at alarmingly close range -- one exploding just 150 metres from the lead car -- prompting a retreat from the area.

The investigating team made it to the crash site, and the Ukrainian government has given guarantees that it will be able to work freely there in the coming days.

But with the situation on a knife-edge, their journeys will remain extremely tense.

Date created : 2014-08-01