Dutch investigators accompanied by armed rebels arrived near the MH17 crash site in eastern Ukraine Tuesday hoping to recover debris from the doomed airliner amid fears all-out fighting could break out again.
Around a dozen experts arrived in a convoy of cars but were not permitted to enter the zone where the Malaysia Airlines plane crashed in July, killing 298 people, in remote rebel-held territory east of Donetsk.
The Dutch team hopes to begin work as soon as possible but there are concerns that rebels could be gearing up for a fresh offensive despite a shaky ceasefire signed in September but dogged by localised outbreaks of fighting.
Five Ukrainian soldiers were killed and nine injured in the east over the past 24 hours, military spokesman Vladyslav Seleznyov said.
There has been intense shelling around Donetsk in recent days and an AFP journalist saw 28 trucks, six tanks and 14 howitzer artillery systems and two armoured personnel carriers driving through rebel territory around the city Monday.
“We hope that the removal of debris can start as soon as possible but that depends on the situation on the ground,” Wim van der Wegen, a spokesman for the Dutch Safety Board, told AFP.
Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, the head of the recovery mission, told public television in the Netherlands that the team was “absolutely ready” to start collecting debris.
Rebels cited by Russian news agencies said the team had abandoned any effort to collect debris Tuesday as negotiations stumbled over a protocol for the project.
The delay came as Russian President Vladimir Putin, facing a fraught week of diplomacy with the West, discussed Ukraine with US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of supplying the pro-Kremlin separatists with the missile that shot down the plane, while Moscow and the rebels have pointed the finger of blame at Kiev’s forces.
The talks with Obama came after US Vice President Joe Biden warned Monday after a call with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko that the “costs to Russia will increase” if it continues to “wilfully violate” the terms of a ceasefire signed in September.
“The unacceptability of a situation when experts cannot get to the crash site has been noted,” the Kremlin said in a statement, after Putin’s meeting with Abbott.
Putin has denied that rebels are hindering access to the site, blaming Ukrainian forces for shelling the area.
Abbott “did not try” to follow through on a threat to “shirtfront” Putin over MH17, which was carrying 38 citizens or residents of Australia, a Kremlin spokesman said.
His country will host this week’s G20 summit in Brisbane where more talks are likely.