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EU readies to punish Russia as fighting blocks MH17 recovery

The EU was set to approve punishing sanctions against Russia Tuesday over its role in the Ukraine crisis, as fighting in the strife-torn east again prevented international experts from reaching the crash site of Malaysian flight MH17.

For the third day running, an unarmed team of Dutch and Australian police ditched plans to travel to the scene of the disaster as “there is currently too much fighting on and around the road to the crash site,” said the Dutch justice ministry.

The Ukrainian military confirmed early Tuesday that violence was still raging.

“Pockets of insurgents are continuing to fire on Ukrainian positions from the towns of Snizhne, Torez and Shakhtarsk,” said the military, referring to towns all located within about 30 kilometres (18 miles) of the site.

The fresh conflict came a day after rebels admitted Kiev had regained control over part of the vast site, where the remains of some of the 298 victims from the MH17 crash still lie 12 days after the disaster.

Kiev would not confirm the rebels’ claim, saying only that its troops had entered a string of towns around the scene.

“Things are fluid at the moment. Someone who has control of it now may not have control in a few hours,” said Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in rebel-held Donetsk about 60 kilometres (35 miles) away from the site.

Bociurkiw also blasted as “absolutely unconscionable” that the remains of the victims still lie out in the open.

Dutch authorities leading the probe feared the remains of some of the 298 victims may never be recovered.

“I believe the chances are not very good” of recovering the corpses, Dutch police chief Gerard Bouman told parliament in The Hague.

Data from the doomed plane’s black boxes showed the crash was caused by shrapnel from a rocket explosion, Kiev said Monday.

The information from the flight recorders was decrypted in Britain after pro-Russian rebels handed them to Malaysian officials.

– ‘Possible war crime’ –

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Monday condemned the downing of the Malaysian airliner as a possible war crime and demanded a “thorough, effective, independent and impartial investigation”.

“This violation of international law, given the prevailing circumstances, may amount to a war crime,” she said.

More than 1,100 people have been killed in the fighting that has engulfed eastern Ukraine over the past three months, the United Nations said, a toll that does not include the plane crash victims.

Local authorities in rebel stronghold Lugansk said Tuesday five people were killed and eight wounded due to “constant firing” on the town over the past 24 hours.

The Red Cross has said Ukraine is now in civil war — a classification that would make parties in the conflict liable to prosecution for war crimes.

Western powers meanwhile are moving to tighten the screws on Russia, which they blame for fanning the rebellion by supplying it with weapons.

Envoys from the 28 states meeting in Brussels are expected to widen sanctions by approving sector-wide embargoes in four key areas: access to capital markets, defence, dual-use goods and sensitive technologies, including in the energy sector.

The sanctions are likely to sink Russia — which posted zero growth in the second quarter after a first-quarter contraction — into recession.

Washington, which believes Russia supplied the missile system used to attack MH17, has also released photographs to bolster its claim that Moscow was taking a direct role in the conflict by firing into Ukraine.

Russia has denied the Western accusations, and rebel commander Igor Strelkov has also said his side did not have anything to do with the MH17 disaster.

“I don’t know how the plane was downed, by what means. I only know that it was downed and that’s it. The only thing I can say is that my men did not down it,” said Strelkov, adding that he did not have any BUK missile systems in hand.