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MH17 crash: International investigators finally reach wreckage site two weeks after Malaysian jet was brought down

Dutch and Australian forensic experts will focus initial efforts on making sure all bodies have been retrieved

As fighting continued to rage in eastern Ukraine, an international team of investigators managed to reach the crash site of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 for the first time since it was brought down by a missile two weeks ago.

Clashes along routes to the wreckage site between government troops and pro-Russian separatist rebels had kept the delegation from reaching the area to retrieve bodies that have been lying in open fields. But the investigators were allowed through a checkpoint leading to the crash site at the village of Rozsypne early on Thursday afternoon by an armed militiaman who then fired a warning shot to prevent reporters from accompanying the convoy. The militiaman, who gave his name only as “Sergei”, told journalists that fighting was still ongoing in Rozsypne.

The team of police and forensic experts, which comprises members from the Netherlands and Australia, were expected initially to focus their efforts on retrieving bodies still on the site and collecting victims’ belongings. Security for investigators has been a major concern as the Ukrainian army continues in its offensive to take back territory from the rebels.

The Ukrainian national security spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said a “day of quiet” was declared today in response to a call for a cease-fire from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “Ukraine has created all the conditions for the foreign experts to work,” he said, adding that separatists continued to block access to the site. Reporters near the crash site said that clashes were taking place in the vicinity.

Those who attempted to reach the site by another route were warned by local residents that some nearby roads have been “mined”. A mortar round landed near Hrabove, another village where fragments of the plane remain uncollected. A journalist for AFP news agency heard several “powerful” blasts and saw a plume of smoke less than six miles from the crash site.

Video: Investigators face difficulties

Rebels deny they shot down flight MH17 by mistake. Russia has been accused of supplying the rebels with weaponry capable of bringing down a passenger jet. But it has suggested Kiev’s armed forces could have downed MH17, a claim rejected by the Ukrainian government. According to reports, rebels are due to meet a Ukrainian delegation today in Minsk as Belarus hosts talks involving Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

A monitoring mission from OSCE spent Wednesday and early Thursday exploring safe routes from their base in the rebel-held city of Donetsk. It remains unclear how many bodies remain at the site and what condition they are in after being exposed for so long to the elements.

But Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from Ukraine, said she has been informed up to 80 bodies were still on the site. A delegation from Russia’s state aviation body said it also hoped to visit the site.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak called on Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatists to agree to a lasting ceasefire around the crash site. Two weeks after the plane’s destruction on 17 July, he said: “The conflict in eastern Ukraine may not be easily resolved, but the people on board that plane had no part in it.”

Razak, who was speaking in a joint news conference with Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte in The Hague, was visiting the Netherlands to discuss repatriating Malaysian victims’ remains and the security situation in Ukraine. “We ask there be an immediate cessation of hostilities in and around the crash site by both Ukrainian and separatist forces,” said Mr Razak.

“We ask that all sides respect the lives lost and the integrity of the crash site so that the investigation may proceed.”


Food fight: Russia targets McDonald’s

As relations between Russia and the West deteriorate, the fortunes of the US fast-food chain have become a proxy for the political situation.

The Russian consumer watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor announced it was investigating the contents of several McDonald’s menu items for questionable ingredients. Russia’s chief sanitary inspector Anna Popova told the Interfax news agency that authorities had identified violations which “put the product quality and safety of the entire McDonald’s chain in doubt”.

The investigation came as the US and EU expand economic sanctions over the Kremlin’s support for separatist rebels in Ukraine. Though the two are not explicitly connected, the Russian authorities have previously wielded foodstuffs as a political weapon, for instance banning the import of Georgian wine before the Russian-Georgian war in 2008.

In an escalation of what the Los Angeles Times dubbed “the undeclared war on the American cheeseburger”, the US’s third-largest chain Wendy’s announced it would abandon the Russian market.

McDonald’s has opened more than 400 branches in Russia since 1990, and the country is now one of the Golden Arches’ top seven  global markets. McDonald’s said it had not been told of any claim against the company and insisted its food abided by regulations.