International experts with sniffer dogs on Saturday recovered the remains of more victims from the downed Malaysia Airlines jet in east Ukraine despite shelling limiting access to some parts of the vast crash site.
Seventy Dutch and Australian police investigators spent the second day of their operation scouring more of the wreckage strewn over some 20 square kilometres (eight square miles), after only managing to screen a tiny patch previously.
“Today, because they had more time, the experts were able to comb through a bigger area,” Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, head of the Dutch police mission said.
“They again found human remains and personal belongings.”
But while work continued undisturbed for the bulk of the experts, mortar fire forced a small team of investigators to hurriedly leave a village where more debris lay.
“We heard at a distance of approximately two kilometres incoming artillery from where we were and that was too close to continue,” said Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Ukraine.
Government troops and pro-Moscow separatists battling across the war-torn region had pledged to halt fighting around the rebel-held site, where the plane was shot down over two weeks ago killing all 298 people on board.
The perilous security situation highlights the difficulties facing investigators as they try to recover remains and then puzzle together what happened, a grim task that those in charge say could take some three weeks.
The United States accuses insurgents of blowing the airliner out of the sky with a surface-to-air missile likely supplied by Russia, while Moscow and the rebels have pointed the finger at the Ukrainian military.
More than 220 coffins have already been sent back to the Netherlands, which lost 193 citizens in the July 17 crash, but more body fragments are still lying out in the cornfields where the plane came down.
The latest remains recovered are being sent to a waiting forensics team in the government-controlled city of Kharkiv by refrigerated van before being sent westwards, Dutch police said.
– ‘Humanitarian catastrophe’ –
Across the rest of the region the violence that has claimed some 1,150 lives since mid-April raged on.
Ukraine’s military said its positions continued to come under heavy fire and that separatists had hit an army drone with a missile similar to the one they say downed MH17.
Government forces have made major gains over the past month and say they are getting close to cutting off the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk from the Russian border and a second insurgent bastion of Lugansk.
In the western outskirts of Donetsk an AFP journalist saw the body of one women lying dead in the street after a mortar shell tore through a residential area.
The fighting has taken a heavy toll on civilians and the mayor in the besieged industrial hub of Lugansk warned that the city was “on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe” as electricity failed and water and fuel ran low.
– International demos –
A poignant memorial to those killed on flight MH17 of two canal boats carrying white-clad colleagues of six AIDS campaigners killed in the tragedy marked a sombre start to the traditionally flamboyant Amsterdam Gay Pride parade on Saturday.
At the same time hundreds of Russians gathered at a pro-rebels demonstration in Moscow calling on President Vladimir Putin to “take action” and send troops to protect the people and maintain peace in east Ukraine.
In a telephone call with Putin on Friday, US President Barack Obama expressed his “deep concerns” about Moscow’s increased support for the separatist fighters.
Obama said he hoped Putin would heed international pressure to defuse the crisis and help Russia’s economy stave off the threat of recession caused by the sanctions.
“But sometimes people don’t always act rationally,” Obama warned.
The Kremlin said the two leaders had agreed that the standoff was “not in the interest of either country”.
Putin — who views Ukraine’s pivot westwards as a fundamental threat to Russia — lashed out at the latest punitive sanctions against Moscow by the United States and the European Union as “counterproductive”, damaging bilateral cooperation and international stability.
Some EU diplomats have warned that the sanctions could actually embolden Putin by convincing him he has nothing to lose by going all-in over the Ukraine crisis.
Stoking those fears, the Pentagon and NATO have said Russia was continuing to reinforce its military presence along the border with Ukraine.