ROZSYPNE, UKRAINE – As mortar fire landed nearby, an international team of investigators finally reached the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 wreckage site Thursday and got their first look at a scene experts fear has been badly compromised in the two weeks since the plane was blown out of the sky.
For the families of the 298 victims, it was an important start in locating and recovering bodies still out in the open and building a case against those who perpetrated the tragedy.
Harun Calehr, the uncle of two young victims of the disaster, said by telephone from his home in the U.S. that he was happy investigators had reached the site. But Calehr said he remains concerned that dozens of bodies haven’t been retrieved.
“It’s been two weeks. I just hope they can get there now and do their job,” Calehr said from Houston. “The only thing keeping me sane is being religious, hoping for something positive.”
As the investigators — two each from the Netherlands and Australia — made an initial survey of the area shortly after lunchtime, fighting raged between government forces and pro-Russian separatist rebels, and mortar shells rained down on fields in a nearby village.
Despite the dangers, the team called the one-hour inspection a success.
“Today was more about an assessment of the site than it was of a search,” said Australian Federal Police commander Brian McDonald.
Up to 80 bodies are still at the site, said Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. from Ukraine.
Ukraine and the U.S. contend the plane was shot down by the rebels July 17 with a Russian-supplied missile. The rebels deny it.
For days, clashes along routes to the wreckage site had kept investigators from reaching the area to find and retrieve bodies that have been decaying in the 32-degree midsummer heat. Independent observers warned that evidence was being tampered with.
But after negotiations, the investigators were allowed through the final rebel checkpoint at the village of Rozsypne on Thursday afternoon 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 territory from the rebels.
Ukrainian national security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said a “day of quiet” was declared Thursday in response to a call for a cease-fire from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
But clashes were still taking place in the immediate vicinity of where the Boeing 777 came down. Reporters who tried to reach the area by another route were warned by residents that some nearby roads had been mined.
And Associated Press reporters passing by Hrabove, another village around which fragments of the plane remain uncollected, saw one mortar shell fall on a spot about 150 meters from their car and heard two more hit nearby. It wasn’t immediately clear who was responsible for the mortar fire or what the intended target was, though Lysenko blamed the rebels.
The 100-km drive took the investigators and eight officials of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from the rebel-held city of 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 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 Twitter that the team observed a moment of silence upon reaching the scene in remembrance of the victims.
Alexander Hug, deputy head of an OSCE monitoring mission to Ukraine, called the visit a success because the delegation “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 20 km around the wreckage site.
The European Union and the U.S. have formed a united front in accusing Russia of fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine by supplying weapons to the rebels. Russia denies that accusation.
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 will take effect Friday.