Officials with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe finally reached the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine on Thursday after nearly a week of failed visits due to fierce clashes in the area between government forces and pro-Russia rebels.
The Ukrainian government, whose military has made key strategic gains in the past week after pushing toward the rebel strongholds in Luhansk and Donetsk, had announced that a 24-hour ceasefire to enable OSCE specialists to reach the site. The team, including two Dutch and two Australian forensic experts, arrived at the site after a four-hour journey along back roads through checkpoints manned by both sides.
The bodies of at least 200 of the 298 passengers killed in the crash have been removed to the Netherlands. The OSCE confirmed that various bodies remain in the fields.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday that the government’s eastern anti-terror operation — which involves the Ukrainian army, the National Guard, and volunteer battalions — had “liberated” some 60 towns and cities, most recently the cities of Debaltseve and Avdiivka.
An attempt to retake Horlivka with heavy artillery attacks earlier this week resulted in 27 civilian deaths, including four children, according to its city council. The city lies just 25 miles northeast of Donetsk.
Three-way talks were held Thursday morning in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, to discuss hostage releases and the securing of safe access to the crash site by a larger team of experts over the coming days.
The meeting was attended by OSCE envoy Heidi Tagliavini, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, and Mikhail Zurabaw, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, but it was unclear whether any Ukrainian separatist leaders were present.
Kuchma, who left office in 2005 following Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, is helping mediate between rebels and the Ukrainian government, which refuses to sit down with those it regards as terrorists.
Nearly five months of fighting has taken a growing financial toll on all sides of the conflict.
Reflecting the escalation of international tensions following the downing of MH17, on Tuesday the European Union and the United States imposed the toughest round of sanctions on Russia yet. The measures targeted the country’s energy, banking, and defense sectors, widening the worst rift between Russia and Western governments since the Cold War.
“If Russia continues on this current path, the costs on Russia will continue to grow,” US President Barack Obama said.“It didn’t have to come to this. It does not have to be this way. This is a choice that Russia, and President Putin in particular, has made.”
Ukraine’s government and its Western allies accuse Russia of supporting the rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine by allowing men and weapons to flow across its border into the conflict zone, including a BUK anti-aircraft missile system that is believed to have attacked MH17.
In an apparent retaliation against the latest round of sanctions, Russia’s government imposed a ban on most fruit and vegetable imports from Poland, noting that it could be expanded to the rest of the EU.
The Kremlin said that the latest round punitive financial measures imposed by the West against Russia are “destructive and short-sighted,” but claimed that “sanitary” concerns had prompted the new restrictions.
Meanwhile the government in Kiev appears to have narrowly averted financial ruin, for now at least, after the parliament approved controversial legislation that amended the government’s budget, raised taxes on tobacco and the energy sector, and introduced a 1.5 percent income tax for the rest of the year to support the military. Poroshenko described the legislation as “unpopular and difficult, but very necessary.”
“We need consolidation, not confrontation,” he said ahead of the vote in parliament. “We have to be united against external aggression.”
Ukraine’s economy is forecast to shrink 6.5 percent this year, leaving it the worst performing economy in Europe.
Despite the looming financial crisis, the assembly had earlier refused to back the budget-boosting legislation, causing Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who took the helm of the crisis-ridden country after Yanukovych’s government was ousted by the Euromaidan protests in February, to tender his resignation after staking his reputation on the bill.
He will remain in office, however, after only 16 deputies voted in favor of his exit — Ukrainian law requires 226 supporting votes for the prime minister’s resignation to be accepted.
Passing the legislation secures an additional $758 million to finance Ukraine’s military operations in the country’s east and reduces the likelihood that the country will default on its debt payments, which would have imperiled a $17 billion International Monetary Fund aid package.
“Ukraine will not default,” Yatsenyuk told an applauding parliament after the legislation was passed.
A recently released United Nations report estimated that at least 230,000 people have fled east Ukraine. More than 1000 people have been killed and several thousand wounded since fighting broke out in mid-April.
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