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International monitors reach jet crash site in Ukraine

Little fighting seen between rebels, military

SHAKHTYORSK, Ukraine — International monitors finally reached the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, after being blocked for days by fighting in the area between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists.

Ukrainian government officials said they had temporarily suspended offensive operations against the rebels to allow the monitors to reach the site safely. Military commanders confirmed that they had been ordered to halt their advance.

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Even so, columns of rising smoke were seen and explosions were heard near the site. In Shakhtyorsk, a mining town 10 miles south of the site, gunshots and explosions were heard through the afternoon.

Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who was with the team at the crash site, said by telephone that they had traveled successfully through government-controlled and rebel-held territory without encountering serious fighting.

Bociurkiw said two Dutch, two Australian, and eight experts from the security agency who reached the site limited their work Thursday to preparing the way for search and recovery work by a larger team of about 60 police officers and forensic experts waiting in Donetsk, the provincial capital.

He said the reconnaissance team determined the crash site was largely unchanged since the plane, carrying 298 people, fell to the ground on July 17. Though emergency workers collected many bodies for shipment to a laboratory in the Netherlands last week, Bociurkiw said the team observed remains at the site Thursday.

Bociurkiw said the monitors’ success in reaching the site, after four failed attempts, was attributable to “negotiating with all the stakeholders,” meaning both the Ukrainian government and the rebels who have controlled the site since the crash.

Russia denies allegations by Ukraine and Western governments it supplied missiles to the rebels that were used to shoot down the plane.

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The Ukrainian government and the rebels have each accused the other of continuing to fight in the area, despite promises and international calls for a cease-fire. The Ukrainian government said this week that it intended to take control of the area, but by surrounding the crash site rather than in a direct fight over it.

Donetsk, the nearest sizable city to the crash site, is the main remaining rebel stronghold in eastern Ukraine.

Roads between Donetsk and the Russian border that pass near the crash site are conduits for rebel fighters and munitions, the government in Kiev has said, and the Ukrainian military has been trying to isolate the rebels by retaking the roads.

At one rebel checkpoint within the crash area, near the village of Rozsypnoe, the Associated Press reported that a separatist militiaman allowed the monitors to pass but fired a shot in the air to keep accompanying reporters from proceeding any farther.

He said there was fighting in the village, the agency reported. Reporters accompanying the group said explosions from nearby shelling could be heard.

The Russian government aviation agency said Thursday that it had sent its own team of experts to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in hopes of reaching the crash site and examining the wreckage.

Russia has denied allegations by Ukraine and Western governments that it supplied missiles to the rebels that were used to shoot down the plane, and has claimed that photographs and other evidence offered to support those allegations were fabrications.

Moscow has asserted that the Ukrainian military was responsible for the disaster.

Vladimir Antyufeyev, the acting prime minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic, as the main separatist group in eastern Ukraine is known, said that a representative of the group would take part in the talks in Minsk on Friday, discussing security at the crash site and other issues with envoys from Ukraine, Russia, and the European security agency. He said he expected political support from Russia at the talks, pressing Ukraine to halt the shelling of civilian areas by its army and allied militias.

In Kiev, Ukraine’s deeply fractured legislature managed to head off a dispute with international creditors who have promised to bail out the country with $17.5 billion in loans, by approving budget amendments and tax measures that the creditors had demanded.

The prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, had staked his position on the legislation, submitted his resignation last week after Parliament voted against adopting a similar bill. His tactic succeeded Thursday when the legislature voted 109-16 against accepting his resignation.

“There are two pieces of news today,” Yatsenyuk told lawmakers afterward. “The first is that Argentina has defaulted. The second is that Ukraine has not defaulted, and never will.”

The legislators also released funds for the military and for repairs to damaged infrastructure in the country, and imposed a 1.5 percent war tax on all incomes. And they ratified agreements with Australia and the Netherlands allowing those countries to send about 950 “armed personnel” to secure the Flight 17 crash site.

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