International monitors finally reached the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, after being blocked for days by fighting in the area between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists.
Officials in the Ukrainian government said they had temporarily suspended offensive operations against the rebels to allow the monitors to reach the site safely. Commanders at Ukrainian military positions near the site confirmed that they had been ordered to halt their advance.
Even so, columns of rising smoke were seen and the sounds of explosions were heard near the site. In Shakhtyorsk, a mining town about 10 miles south of the site, gunshots and explosions were heard through the afternoon, though it was unclear who was firing.
Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe who was with the team at the crash site, said by telephone that they had travelled successfully through checkpoints in both government-controlled and rebel-held territory without encountering serious fighting.
Mr. Bociurkiw said the two Dutch, two Australian and eight OSCE experts who reached the site limited their work Thursday to initial reconnaissance, preparing the way for later search and recovery work by a larger team of about 60 police officers and forensic experts waiting in Donetsk, the provincial capital.
He said the reconnaissance team determined that the crash site had remained largely intact and unchanged since the plane, carrying 298 people, fell to the ground on July 17. Though local emergency workers collected many of the victims’ bodies for shipment to a forensic laboratory in the Netherlands last week, Mr. Bociurkiw said the team observed human remains still at the site Thursday.
Bociurkiw said the monitors’ success in reaching the site, after four failed attempts, was attributable to “negotiating with all the stakeholders,” meaning both the Ukrainian government and the rebels who have controlled the site since the crash.
Vladimir Antyufeyev, the acting prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, as the main separatist group in eastern Ukraine is known, said in an interview that a representative of the group would take part in the talks in Minsk on Friday, discussing security at the crash site and other issues with envoys from Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE.
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