International investigators on Friday collected decomposing remains and belongings of victims of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 disaster after finally getting access to the eastern Ukraine crash site, Dutch officials reported.
"We hope that the start of these activities and the recovery of these remains will bring some comfort to the families of the victims," said Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, head of the Dutch contingent probing the debris field.
In a statement to journalists in Kiev, Ukraine, that was posted on the Dutch Ministry of Security and Justice website, Aalbersberg said the recovered body parts and personal belongings were being photographed and sealed for transport back to the Netherlands for forensic analysis.
About 200 coffins containing the remains of crash victims already have been sent to a Dutch military base for identification and analysis after they were removed from the debris field by pro-Russia gunmen who control the eastern Ukraine territory where the Boeing 777 was brought down by a missile on July 17.
But dozens of victims from among the 298 passengers and crew on board the doomed jet remain unaccounted for and their recovery is a top priority for the international mission, Aalbersberg said.
Earlier efforts to gain access to the crash site for the team of 70 Dutch and Australian forensic experts were thwarted by separatists' roadblocks and by fighting with government troops that was too close to allow the investigators safe passage.
A smaller contingent of the international investigative team was able to reach the crash site on Thursday for a preliminary review after the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe negotiated an agreement between the Ukrainian government and representatives of the separatists' proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic. The agreement specified a route and time for the 16-vehicle convoy to travel, OSCE said in its daily monitoring report.
OSCE, a 57-member alliance that is the only multinational security forum to which Russia and Ukraine both belong, has had more than 100 monitors deployed throughout Ukraine to document irregular military activity since Russian troops seized the Crimean peninsula in February and President Vladimir Putin annexed it to Russia two weeks later.
As the foreign investigators combed the wreckage-strewn field that spans square miles of eastern Ukraine farmland, Russian fighter jets and helicopters reportedly menaced Ukrainian government positions in the disputed territory surrounding the crash site as well as the former Soviet republics on the Baltic Sea that are now members of NATO.
NATO jets were scrambled from a Lithuanian air base to identify the Russian aircraft “flying without a pre-agreed schedule” over the Baltic near Estonia, said Viktorija Cieminyte, a spokeswoman for Lithuania’s Defense Ministry.
Defense officials in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, also complained of Russian air intrusions and said their forces had shot down a Russian drone as it flew over the restive eastern region.
“During the last 24 hours, terrorists fired on the checkpoints and positions of Ukrainian forces in a number of cities and villages,” Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine National Security and Defense Council, told reporters in Kiev. He said some of the shelling had come from across the border in Russia.
Another Ukrainian security spokesman, Vladyslav Seleznev, accused the militants of violating a 24-hour "day of quiet" in the MH-17 crash area to attack a convoy of government troops early Friday. At least 10 Ukrainian soldiers died in the ambush, he said.Follow @cjwilliamslat for the latest international news 24/7