A TEAM of 70 Dutch and Australian forensic experts have found human remains at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine.
The grim discovery came on their first full day of searching the site, an area of about 13½ square miles and scene of fierce battles between separatists and Ukrainian forces.
Local search parties previously recovered 227 of the 298 victims and they were flown to the Netherlands for identification.
Fighting still rages around the site, and ten Ukrainian soldiers were killed nearby on Thursday.
That fighting previously prevented the investigators reaching the area.
The investigators and officials from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe travelled from rebel-held Donetsk in 15 cars and a bus to the crash site outside the village of Hrabove yesterday.
As they set up a base at a chicken farm, artillery fire was heard in the distance. It was impossible to tell how far away shells were landing and whether the Ukrainian army or rebel forces were firing, witnesses said.
The investigative team’s top priority was to recover human remains that have been rotting in summer temperatures of 32C since the Boeing 777 was downed on 17 July. They were also trying to retrieve the belongings of those killed.
After they arrived, team members wearing gloves dispersed in small groups and walked into fields of scrub. They placed found items in blue plastic buckets.
Other team members gathered around plane wreckage, taking photos of debris from the jet’s fuselage and tail. Rebels guarding the perimeter kept their distance and some patrolled the streets of the neighbouring village of Rozspyne.
Ukraine and the West contend the plane was shot down by the rebels with a Russian-supplied missile. Their leaders publicly deny it, but one top rebel official said that insurgents were involved.
Yesterday’s search effort came after a smaller advance investigative team managed to perform a preliminary survey on Thursday. For days, clashes along routes to the site had kept investigators at bay. Independent observers warned evidence was being tampered with.
The sprawling site of fields between two villages has now been designated a crime scene and is being divided into grids for systematic searches for remains, belongings and evidence, Australian policeman Brian McDonald said. Trained search dogs were also being used.
The investigative team’s journey in their convoy lasted about three hours from Donetsk, through the government-held town of Debaltseve, and back into separatist-controlled territory. At Debaltseve, the convoy was joined by three vehicles from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Both sides in the conflict tentatively agreed a ceasefire around the crash site, but yesterday an attack by rebels on government troops took place less than 12 miles to the south, outside Shakhtarsk. Ukrainian forces and rebels have been battling for several days but the town is still in rebel hands.
Defence officials said an army convoy was struck by mortars.
Ukraine security spokesman Vladislav Seleznev said the attack took place at 6am yesterday, before the end of the 24-hour “day of quiet” declared on Thursday in response to a ceasefire call from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“The militants are behaving in a cowardly and shameless fashion,” Mr Seleznev said. “They used the ‘day of quiet’ just to fire on us.”
Ukraine defence spokesman Andriy Lysenko said 13 soldiers were missing in action after the attack. He said the bodies of a further four people killed had not yet been identified.
Ukrainian forces are trying to drive a wedge between rebel-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk. Shakhtarsk lies on one of two roads linking them.