© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fighting In Ukraine A Hurdle As Investigators Try To Access MH17 Site


And let's get an update next on the Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down over eastern Ukraine last week. The Netherlands and Australia are calling for a multinational force to protect the wreckage site. Officials from those countries fear that some human remains and evidence from the site may never be recovered unless that site is secured. Most of the debris field is still unprotected more than a week after the jetliner was shot down, killing all 298 people onboard. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Donetsk.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: At one of the main wreckage sites, the sun beat down on the sunflower and wheat fields as investigators made their way on foot to pieces from the plane scattered far away from the road. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe escorted Malaysian experts and Australian diplomats to areas that hadn't been examined before. Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE team, pointed to a spot down the hill from the narrow road.

MICHAEL BOCIURKIW: In the wooded area there, we saw what we believe to be the biggest kind of intact piece of the fuselage. This is quite a long piece with the Malaysian Airlines colors. The windows are still intact. There's quite a bit of material there.

FLINTOFF: Disturbingly, Bociurkiw said the team saw human remains that had not yet been recovered, along with a lot of personal possessions, such as children's games. He called the site heartbreaking. At a briefing later that day, Bociurkiw said team members also saw more evidence that may show how the plane was shot down - including parts of the fuselage with what appeared to be shrapnel holes.

BOCIURKIW: Probably to an untrained eye, it didn't strike us that these were holes or almost machine gun-type of holes, if I can put it that way - but very invasive, that bent metal that we haven't seen anywhere else.

FLINTOFF: U.S. officials say that evidence from various sources indicates that the plane was most likely shot down with a surface-to-air missile fired from territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. The separatists deny firing the weapon, although they have made contradictory statements of whether they actually have one of these missiles systems. Australia, which lost 28 citizens, is trying to organize an effort to protect evidence at the wreckage site. This is Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

PRIME MINISTER TONY ABBOTT: There has still not been anything like a thorough professional search of the area where the plane came down, and there can't be. There can't be while the site is controlled by armed men with a vested interest in the outcome of any investigation.

FLINTOFF: Abbott said he sent 50 Australian police officers to London in preparation for deploying them to Ukraine. The Netherlands is sending 40 unarmed military police to help secure the crash site and aid in the investigation. The majority of the passengers aboard the flight were Dutch citizens. But the intense fighting in eastern Ukraine is raising concerns for the safety of the foreign police and investigators. U.S. officials are accusing Russia of shelling Ukrainian army positions from across the border. And fighting continues in nearby Donetsk and surrounding towns. This is the Oktyaberskaya neighborhood, less than half a mile from the Donetsk airport.

RUSLAN: (Russian spoken).

FLINTOFF: This man, Ruslan, told us that there has been shelling nearby everyday since late May - so much so that neighbors have gotten used to it.

RUSLAN: (Through translator) Right now, it's not like heavy shelling because it was a couple days ago, you see this bus station and we have some small shop with a product that's been shelled - a couple buildings burnt because of that. For now, it's kind of low shelling.

FLINTOFF: Ruslan, who declined to give his last name, said most people have moved their families out of the neighborhood as the fighting spreads. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Donetsk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.