AMSTERDAM – Investigators using sniffer dogs recovered more human remains and personal belongings at the Malaysia Airlines wreckage site in eastern Ukraine on Saturday, the head of an international recovery mission said.
Speaking from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg said 70 Dutch and Australian investigators were able to reach the site for the second consecutive day, despite clashes between pro-Russia separatist rebels and Ukrainian forces nearby.
Flight 17 was shot down above the village of Hrabove July 17 with what the West says was a Russian-made missile fired by the rebels, killing all 298 passengers and crew, most of them Dutch.
Aalbersberg did not give details of the remains recovered. His team is searching for decomposing remains of approximately 80 victims spread over an area of 8 square miles (20 square kilometres) — a process expected to take weeks.
He thanked the warring sides for allowing the mission to proceed, after being delayed most of the week by fighting.
“This is of great importance to the international police officers, the experts and, especially, the victims’ families,” he said.
Remains are being transferred by refrigerated truck to a facility in Kharkiv, where they can be examined by Dutch, Malaysian and Australian forensic experts.
They will then be sent on to the Netherlands, to join more than 200 bodies that were collected and transferred in an initial haphazard effort overseen by the rebels. Those remains are now being painstakingly identified.
Aalbersberg said his team had been able to search a greater area on Saturday, despite hearing sounds of mortar fire in the distance as they worked.
Friday and Saturday’s search focused on the area around a chicken farm near the village of Grabovo, but that phase of the operation is now complete, Aalbersberg said.
“Tomorrow our goal is to move the search to an area northeast of the village of Rozsypne, where pieces of wreckage from the aircraft have been found,” he said.
He added he hopes to expand his team to a full strength of 100 by Monday.
In Moscow, Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the European Union on Saturday of withdrawing a ban on supplying Ukraine with military technology and equipment “on the quiet,” but the EU says it announced the move openly — two weeks ago.
The EU decided at the height of violence in Kyiv between government forces and protesters to ban the export for goods that can be used for “repression,” such as riot gear, tear gas and police batons.
That measure was lifted on July 16, said EU spokesman Michael Mann.
On that day, the EU’s news release noted in a section on Ukraine: “Member states also agreed to discontinue the application of their agreement of 20 February 2014 on export licenses.”
The West has rejected Russia’s denials that it has supplied tanks, armoured personnel carriers, rockets and other equipment to rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine has complained that its forces have been attacked by weapons based on the Russian side of the border, while the Russian ministry on Saturday renewed its claims that Ukrainian forces had fired over the border at targets in Russia.
Juergen Baetz in Brussels contributed to this report.