Rumors, fighting hamper efforts to secure Ukraine jet-crash site
A team of seven Dutch forensic experts who tried to reach the crash site early Saturday gave up after running into fighting along the road, and amid broadcasts in the Russian news media stoking conspiracy theories of a secret Dutch military mission.
The New York Times
KHARKIV, Ukraine — An international push to find out who shot down a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine stalled Saturday, with 40 Dutch military police officers who had planned to secure the crash site for forensic investigators stuck in a luxury hotel 190 miles away as heavy fighting blocked their access route and the Russian news media stoked conspiracy theories of a secret Dutch military mission.
The jet, a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, crashed in territory in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russia rebels on July 17, and while most of the bodies of the 298 victims of Flight 17 have now been recovered and flown to the Netherlands for identification, forensic investigators have not been able to reach the area in sufficient numbers to conduct a full examination of the plane’s debris and determine what and who brought it down.
Ukrainian and U.S. officials say it was shot down by a Russian-made, surface-to-air missile fired by the rebels. Russia and the rebels have denied any involvement and blame Ukraine.
A team of seven Dutch forensic experts who tried to reach the crash site early Saturday gave up after running into fighting along the main road from Kharkiv to Donetsk, the capital of the rebels’ self-proclaimed republic. A separate group of four Dutch experts managed to reach the crash site Friday but, after heavy fighting erupted overnight in Donetsk, planned to pull out.
Russia has repeatedly said it supports efforts to investigate the crash, but a television station with close ties to the Kremlin added a major obstacle on Friday with a report that seemed designed to provoke violent hostility toward foreign investigators among the rebels.
Life News, a Russian television station whose reports often veer into wild conspiracy theories, suggested the Dutch government would use the crash investigation as a pretext to infiltrate special forces in rebel-held territory and hunt down and seize the separatists’ military commander, a Russian citizen known as Igor Strelkov.
The Dutch police reacted with baffled horror to the report, noting that none of the 40 military police officers currently in Kharkiv awaiting deployment to the crash site had weapons.
“This whole story is total nonsense,” said Esther Naber, a Dutch police spokeswoman. She said the Dutch Embassy in Moscow was working to assure the Russians that the Dutch had no secret plan to seize Strelkov, whose real name is Igor Girkin, and only wanted to help forensic investigators work safely at the crash site.
Twenty Dutch forensic experts had planned to travel to the crash site with the military police Saturday but have now put off their journey until at least Sunday. Australia is also sending a team of investigators, but it is not clear whether they will be able to reach the crash site either.
The Netherlands, whose citizens accounted for around two-thirds of the crash victims, is leading an international effort to get to the bottom of what happened to Flight 17.
Its own on-the-ground investigation stymied for the moment, the Dutch National Police appealed for videos and photographs taken at the crash site and set up a special website for the submission of video and images.
Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, will fly to the Netherlands on Wednesday for talks with Prime Minister Mark Rutte about gaining better access to the disaster site and identifying the dead, Najib’s office said in an email Saturday. At least 30 more investigators are needed to cover the site, far beyond the seven or so there now, his office said.
“Unfortunately, events on the ground — including ongoing fighting between Ukrainian and separatist forces — prevent such a large contingent of investigators being deployed,” the email said.
Reaching the crash site, a rural area dotted with wheat and sunflower fields east of Donetsk, has always been problematic, but became even more difficult Saturday for investigators based in Kharkiv after fighting flared around Horlivka, a town on the main road into Donetsk that is still controlled by the rebels.
The fighting outside Horlivka was the latest major battle in a push by Ukrainian government forces to shrink territory held by the separatists and, ultimately, to force a showdown with rebels holed up in the regional capital, Donetsk.
In Moscow, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued two statements Saturday, criticizing the Europeans for sanctioning some of Russia’s top security officials and blaming the U.S. for the continued fighting in Ukraine.
“The additional sanctions list is direct evidence that the countries of the EU are determined to completely scale back cooperation with Russia on issues of global and regional security,” the statement said.
The decision will surely be greeted “with enthusiasm by global terrorists,” the statement said, noting that the issues affected include terrorism, organized crime and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The second statement came in response to accusations by the White House and other U.S. officials that Russia was supplying even more weapons to the separatists in southeastern Ukraine and again blaming President Vladimir Putin as being ultimately responsible for the downing of the Malaysian airliner.
Also Saturday, Putin spoke to the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, and the two men agreed on the need to implement the U.N. Security Council Resolution calling for a cease-fire around the crash site to insure the “unhampered work of international experts in the catastrophe area,” according to a brief statement on the Kremlin website.