As clashes raged in nearby towns, villages, and fields today, an international delegation of officials, alongside unarmed police officers and forensic experts from Malaysia and Australia, turned back from an attempt to visit the wreckage of MH17 in eastern Ukraine for a second consecutive day.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convoy, accompanied by rebels driving commandeered police cars, reached the road nearby Shakhtersk but halted the mission due to safety concerns as the sound of heavy artillery explosions echoed close by.
Journalists near the outskirts of town reported locals were loading cars with whatever they could carry and fleeing.
“I don’t want another war,” retiree Sima told VICE News by telephone from the town. “There is a lot of fighting. I don’t know what is going on.”
Katerina, another frightened local in nearby Snezhnoe, told VICE News she could hear "huge" explosions, but was unable to get in or out of the city and had lost telephone contact with her elderly mother in Shakhtersk.
Today the UN's top official, Navi Pillay, called for a "prompt, thorough, effective, independent, and impartial investigation" of the downing of MH17, which she said could be considered a war crime.
On Sunday, despite a previous declaration of a ceasefire in a 25-mile zone around the site by the country’s President Petro Poroshenko, Ukrainian forces announced a push forward into area surrounding the downed plane.
The ostensible aim of the drive is to regain control of the site is to “liberate the territory” and “get all the proof needed to deduce the real reason for this tragedy,” according to Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council. But the area just 25 miles shy of Ukraine’s border with Russia and lying on the cusp of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts is of huge strategic importance to the Ukrainian forces, which are trying to sever supply routes to the rebels.
Despite the previous announcement of a renewed offensive and the obvious clashes raging in the area, Lysenko today denied fighting was taking place near the wreckage of MH17.
“The Ukrainian military has approached the site of the crash, but is not engaged in any active combat,” he told reporters in Kiev.
The escalation in clashes comes as the UN announced a “conservative figure” of 1,129 people, including 799 civilians, killed in eastern Ukraine since the conflict began in mid-April. A further 3,442 have been wounded.
On July 23 the International Committee of the Red Cross formally classified the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a “civil war.” The categorization opens both sides up to prosecution under international law for war crimes and obligates warring parties to distinguish between military targets and civilian objects, such as schools.
A Human Rights Watch report released last week found evidence that “strongly suggests” Grad and mortars attacks which killed at least 16 civilians in Donetsk and its suburbs were launched by government forces, but noted that its on the ground investigations covered only a very small number of documented cases.
“Both sides have artillery weapons, including Grad and mortars, and could face war crime charges under international humanitarian law if they don’t stop using these weapons in populated areas knowing that it is killing civilians,” Ole Solvang, one of the authors of the HRW report, told VICE News.
The UN report, released on Monday, estimated that 230,000 people had fled the fighting in the region and also expressed mounting concern over the climate of intimidation in the rebel-held areas of the east, where kidnappings, torture, and even executions have been exacted on the local population.
According to the document, “there is a total breakdown of law and order and a reign of fear and terror has been inflicted by armed groups on the population.” The rebels who have been acting with impunity have detained at least 812 people, “the majority normal citizens” said the report.
This afternoon, both sides claimed to control the areas surrounding the crash site. But reports from locals on the ground suggested the area remained a no man's land in the midst of an ongoing battle.
Speaking at a press conference in Donetsk today, the so-called defense minister of the Donetsk People's Republic accused Ukraine of hiring mercenaries to fire at civilians near the crash site, and claimed that the rebels had killed Kiev-hired soldiers of the "negroid race" during the fighting.
Continued clashes in the area are killing any remaining hopes of any meaningful on the ground investigation into the downing of the MH17 flight. Potential investigations into the causes of the crash have already been marred by rebels hindering experts’ access to the site and contamination of the unsecured site.
Around 200 passengers bodies have been removed fields, according to a preliminary estimate by Dutch forensic experts last week. All 298 people onboard MH17 were killed in the crash.
No further figures have been forthcoming since, but Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has already conceded that those remains still at the site "subject to interference and subject to ravages of heat and animals" may now never be identified or retrieved.
Meanwhile in Brussels, European officials continued to discuss the possibility of sanctions against Russian oligarchs. The potential move to broaden travel bans and asset freezes to members of Putin’s inner circle, who are not necessarily directly connected with Ukraine’s woes, is supposed to signal a step up from previous rounds of more targeted economic penalties.
All Photos by Harriet Salem
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem