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Fighting blocks access to site of jetliner crash

A clash between separatists and Ukrainian forces Tuesday destroyed a residential area in Horlivka, a rebel stronghold.

IGOR KOVALENKO/European pressphoto agency

A clash between separatists and Ukrainian forces Tuesday destroyed a residential area in Horlivka, a rebel stronghold.

ROZSYPNE, Ukraine — The sprawling fields of debris where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed in eastern Ukraine, leaving a gruesome enough scene as it was, took on new macabre elements Tuesday as the zone became a front line in the war here.

The fighting has driven separatists from part, but not all, of the crash site, which is about 14 square miles, leaving it unclear how or when investigators and an international police force now in Donetsk would be able to resume collecting evidence and any remaining bodies.

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Soon after the airliner was shot down July 17, both the Ukrainian military and separatists vowed to uphold a truce in the area, lest the fighting disrupt the forensic investigation and efforts to retrieve the bodies of those on board. But nothing of the sort happened.

The fighting that has now roughly bisected the debris zone prevented Dutch and Australian police officers and forensic experts from reaching the area for a third day. The team did not venture out of Donetsk, where artillery shelling was striking the center of the city.

From virtually the moment Flight 17 fell out of the sky — en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — the wreckage zone has presented Ukrainian officials with a challenge, forcing them to admit they did not control a major disaster zone in their own country. While everyone from the Ukrainian president down pledged cooperation at the crash site, the prospect of a long investigation potentially presented an obstacle to Ukraine’s larger goals of retaking Donetsk and defeating the rebels.

Had the investigation begun under rebel auspices, it would have left separatists in control of a strategic territory in the larger battle.

The Ukrainian army said it was pressing an offensive to surround Donetsk, the separatist capital, and also to push insurgents away from the crash site, but denied it was fighting in the debris fields, even as a front now split the site in two. Bodies or body parts from the crash remained there; Dutch officials said 227 coffins were flown to the Netherlands; separatists initially said they had collected bodies and body fragments of all 298 victims.

In a move that was likely to delay international investigators reaching the debris zone, the Donetsk People’s Republic, the main rebel group in eastern Ukraine, announced Tuesday that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe was serving the interests of Ukraine and the United States, and would be banned from the crash site. It was unclear whether the foreign forensic teams and police contingents would also be ordered to leave.

Separatist fighters were drifting away from the area Tuesday afternoon, with a half-dozen glum-looking and exhausted gunmen hunkered down in trenches on the western edge. The men did not bother to venture out to check the documents of people in a car creeping through the area.

One of the fighters in a roadside trench, who gave only his nickname, Trojan, said Ukrainian forces now controlled the village of Grabovo, the site of a field where the main landing gear, the wings, and the rear cone of the Boeing 777-200’s fuselage hit. Behind him lay a cargo pallet from the flight. “The plane isn’t relevant now,” he said. “We’re being attacked.”

This village, where the cockpit fell in a field and pancaked, and where many bodies landed, was still being contested Tuesday, a day when fighting also raged in a half-dozen other cities in eastern Ukraine.

In Petropavlovka, a village where the debris included overhead luggage bins from the plane’s business-class section that landed in a tree, residents said shooting raged through the night into early Tuesday.

“Our nerves are totally destroyed,” said Maria Nikolayeva, a retired woman at the village store. She said she was distraught from finding personal belongings in her garden, including a white-and-blue sandal and a Dutch clog shoe.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has been negotiating for access to the crash area for Dutch, Malaysian and Australian recovery teams. But it was clear from statements by officials in Kiev that they wanted government forces to take control of the wreckage site before investigators began their work.

Volodymyr Groysman, a deputy prime minister leading the government’s response to the downing of the jetliner, said the territory would be brought under government control by Thursday at the latest.

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