GRABOVE, Ukraine (AFP) - Work began Sunday to remove the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, four months after it was shot down claiming 298 lives.
An AFP journalist saw workers from the emergency ministry of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic begin cutting pieces of the plane's wreckage with metal saws at the crash site near the village of Grabove.
Some 15 members from the rebel recovery crew used a crane to winch wreckage onto two trucks waiting nearby to shift the evidence from the scene. The team faces a race against time to complete the recovery effort before harsh winter conditions in the former Soviet state make it difficult to continue.
Investigators from The Netherlands heading the probe into the downing, in which 193 Dutch citizens died, confirmed that they were overseeing the removal of the debris and said it could take "several days".
"Today the recovery of wreckage from flight MH17 has started. The Dutch Safety Board commissioned the recovery and transportation to The Netherlands of the wreckage as part of the investigation into the cause of the crash of flight MH17," the Dutch experts said in a statement.
The investigation team said the wreckage would be collected close to the crash site before being transported to the government-controlled city of Kharkiv and then flown to The Netherlands. The Dutch experts eventually intend to reconstruct a section of the doomed airliner.
Ukraine and the West accuse Russia of supplying pro-Moscow rebels with the missile that shot down the Boeing 777 in an incident that stepped up international pressure on Moscow over its role in the conflict in Ukraine. Moscow and the separatists have strenuously denied they were behind the downing of the plane, pointing the finger of blame instead at Kiev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin came under fresh pressure over Ukraine and the MH17 shooting-down at the G20 summit in Brisbane. US President Barack Obama warned that if Putin “continues down the path that he is on, violating international law, providing heavy arms to the separatists in Ukraine.... then the isolation that Russia is currently experiencing will continue.”
After a series of frosty exchanges with his fellow leaders, Putin left the summit ahead of schedule on Sunday, saying he needed to catch up on some sleep.
The MH17 probe team has so far managed to collect and identify the remains of 289 victims from the tragedy but recovery operations have been disrupted by fierce fighting in the area between government forces and insurgents. Any further human remains found among the wreckage will also recovered by the rescue team, the Dutch Safety Board said.
Elsewhere around the region, fighting dragged on between the two sides, with the Ukrainian military saying that six soldiers were injured as its positions came under mortar fire 26 times during the night. Local officials in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk reported no “active hostilities” were taking place around the city Sunday morning, while the governor of neighbouring Lugansk region said there was only intermittent shelling there.
The latest clashes come despite a nominal ceasefire that has halted fighting along much of the frontline but not stopped regular artillery bombardments at strategic hotspots. Over 4,100 people have been killed in the conflict since April and some 9,700 injured according to figures from the United Nations.
The crisis has sent tensions between Russia and the West soaring to their highest point since the end of the Cold War. The European Union and United States have already slapped the toughest sanctions on Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union over its meddling in Ukraine.
EU foreign ministers are set to discuss the situation in Ukraine at a meeting in Brussels on Monday. Moscow rejects allegations that it has provided the rebels with heavy weaponry but does offer open political and humanitarian support to separatist statelets. On Sunday, the latest in a series of convoys of what Moscow says is humanitarian aid arrived in Donetsk after crossing over a stretch of rebel-held border into Ukraine.