THE HAGUE (AFP) - International experts suspended their search for body parts at the MH17 crash site on Wednesday because of deteriorating security in eastern Ukraine, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.
"It doesn't make sense to continue with the repatriation in this manner," the Dutch leader told a press conference in The Hague.
Mr Rutte said increasing tension between Kiev - which is battling pro-Russian separatists in the area - has made it too unsafe to continue with the search for victims' remains.
"It goes without saying that Australia and Malaysia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation are with us on this issue," Mr Rutte said.
"We have done what we could under the current circumstances," he said.
On Thursday, a flight containing a large number of personal belongings of victims are expected to arrive in the Netherlands, Mr Rutte also announced.
This included photo albums, jewellery, cameras, notebooks, passports and cuddly toys.
A total of 298 passengers and crew were killed when the Boeing 777 jet flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was blown out of the sky almost three weeks ago.
The United States says insurgents shot down the plane with a surface-to-air missile likely supplied by Russia, but Moscow and the rebels blame the Ukrainian military.
On Monday, Malaysian experts joined Dutch and Australian police for the first time as they continued combing the area for traces of the victims.
So far, 228 coffins with human remains have been flown to The Netherlands, which suffered the most casualties in the July 17 crash and where the painstaking identification process is taking place.
The probe into the crash has been repeatedly delayed by fighting in the region.
"We have to stop the mission at this point, but we'll continue as soon as the situation allows," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said on his official Facebook page.
- 'Safety is top priority' -
Earlier on Wednesday, Dutch, Australian and Malaysian investigators were enlisting the help of local villagers by handing out flyers in the small nearby village of Rozsypne.
The flyers asked local villagers to help locate victims' remains and personal belongings and also to tell what they saw or experienced during the disaster, the Dutch Justice Ministry said in a statement in The Hague.
But it later issued another statement quoting the head of the Dutch police mission in Ukraine, Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg as saying the security situation deteriorated so "police personnel and experts can no longer perform their work safely." "The safety of our people is our top priority. This was highlighted today (Wednesday) when small calibre guns were fired close-by the search team," Mr Aalbersberg said, forcing the the experts to move to a secure location.
Mr Aalbersberg thanked local villagers for their assistance but said "our team is disappointed that they can't complete their important task." "At the same time, we are pleased that we have been able to recover human remains and personal belongings," he said.
He said a total of 10 one-cubic-meter packages had been filled with personal goods collected around the crash scene.
"These include items of great significance to the victims' loved ones, such as photo albums, cameras, jewellery, diaries, passports and cuddly toys," Mr Aalbersberg said.