An international team of investigators has for the first time reached the crash site of the Malaysia Airline flight MH17 in war-torn eastern Ukraine.
Fighting along the route to the site of the wreckage between government troops and pro-Russian separatist rebels had kept the delegation from reaching the area for a week.
Reports suggest the site is now under the control of separatist rebel fighters.
Police and forensic experts from the Netherlands and Australia are expected to initially focus their efforts on retrieving bodies and victims’ belongings.
Australian officials believe around 80 bodies remain at the site. Explosions were reportedly heard after forensic scientists arrived. Eyewitnesses said they heard several “powerful” blasts and saw a plume of smoke less than six miles from the site.
Russian aviation experts are also in Ukraine, hoping to visit the disaster zone.
The passenger jet crashed on 17 July killing all 298 people on board. The Netherlands lost 193 of its citizens while Australia lost 27 and Malaysia 43.
Rebels deny shooting down the jet with a missile by mistake.
Officials in Russia, which has been accused by the United States and others of supplying the rebels with advanced weaponry, suggest Ukraine’s own armed forces downed the jet – a charge rejected by Kiev.
Russia has come under increased pressure to end its support for the rebels despite rejecting claims it is arming and training them.
Ukraine’s parliament backed the deployment of up to 950 Dutch and Australian “armed personnel” at the crash site. It also rejected the resignation of prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk after his coalition collapsed.
A new round of European Union sanctions was revealed yesterday following similar action by the US. Separatist rebels are reportedly due to meet a Ukrainian delegation on Friday in Minsk, as Belarus hosts talks involving Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
OSCE monitors on the ground said in a tweet that they had reached the crash site with the Dutch and Australian investigators via a new access route. They stopped for a minute’s silence yesterday at the site in remembrance of those killed almost two weeks ago to the hour.
The Dutch justice ministry said the Dutch-Australian team was so far only a “reconnaissance” mission but would hopefully pave the way for more experts to visit soon.
Speaking in Kiev, Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop said: “We are determined to access the site, so that we can collect the remains with some dignity and return them to the Netherlands where they can be identified. And then the grieving families across the world who lost 298 people can have some closure.”
Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, on a visit to the Netherlands, said a team of 68 Malaysian police officers had arrived in Kiev to help with the investigation.
Speaking alongside his Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte, he said they were united in mourning.
Mr Rutte said their priorities were: to repatriate the rest of the remains; to establish the cause of the crash; and to bring those responsible to justice.
A Russian delegation led by Oleg Storchevoy, deputy head of Russia’s federal air transport agency Rosaviatsia, arrived in Kiev earlier. “Russian experts intend to meet the head of the investigative commission… and hand over all the materials the chairman of the commission had asked for,” Rosaviatsia said.