Fighting around the site of the Malaysian airliner downed in Ukraine prevented a visit by international experts yesterday, although Malaysia said separatists had agreed to allow international police and investigators into the area.
Alexander Hug, deputy head for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) monitoring mission in Ukraine, said: "We heard indications there's fighting going on.
The eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are gripped by heavy fighting as Ukrainian government forces try to dislodge pro-Russian separatists from the site where Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down earlier this month. "Fighting in the area will most likely affect [the] crash site," Hug said.
Ukraine's National Security Council said government troops had encircled Horlivka, a key rebel stronghold, and that there had been fighting in other cities in the east. Horlivka is about 30km north of the main rebel-held city of Donetsk.
The armed forces "have increased assaults on territory held by pro-Russian mercenaries, destroyed checkpoints and positions and moved very close to Horlivka", the council said.
Local media reported fighting in the towns of Snizhne and Torez, the two nearest mid-sized towns to the crash site.
The Donetsk regional government - which is loyal to Kiev and based elsewhere since rebels took over the area - said yesterday that at least 13 people, including two children aged one and 5, were killed in fighting in Horlivka. It said another five people were killed as a result of clashes in a suburb north of Donetsk.
The OSCE has provided a team to monitor the site in advance of an investigation.
Earlier, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said an agreement reached with separatist leader Aleksander Borodai would "provide protection for international crash investigators" to recover human remains and ascertain the cause of the crash.
"It is imperative that we deploy a full team of investigators to ensure all the human remains are removed from the site, identified and repatriated," Najib said yesterday.
"We also need a full deployment of investigators to have unfettered access to the crash site so we can understand precisely what happened to MH17.
"I hope that this agreement with Mr Borodai will ensure security on the ground, so the investigators can conduct their work."
Najib said "three grieving nations"- Malaysia, Australia and the Netherlands - had formed a police group to secure the site.
Among the 298 people who died aboard the Boeing 777 on its flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17 were 193 Dutch nationals, 43 Malaysians and 28 Australians.
The US and other Western countries suggest separatists downed the plane with a surface-to-air missile supplied by Russia. The separatists deny the accusation and Russia says it has provided no such weapons.
Associated Press, Reuters