DONETSK, July 28 — Satellite photos show that Russia has shelled across the border into Ukraine, the Obama administration said, as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said signs of heavy fighting prevented investigators from reaching the crash site of Malaysian Air Flight 17.
“Russian forces have fired across the border at Ukrainian military forces,” the State Department said in a statement accompanying the photos released yesterday. The pictures also purportedly show “Russia-backed separatists have used heavy artillery, provided by Russia, in attacks on Ukrainian forces from inside Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s forces were attacked twice from Russian territory, the Ukrainian defence ministry said in a posting on Facebook, without giving further details.
The defence ministry also said Ukrainian forces have surrounded Horlivka, a city about 40 kilometres northeast of the regional capital of Donetsk, a city of 1 million people where insurgents retreated after abandoning other positions this month. Ukrainian forces also began operations near the city of Lutugino, about 20 kilometres from the regional capital of Luhansk, the defence ministry said.
Meanwhile, the European Union promised to consider its strongest sanctions yet against Russia over its involvement.
The July 17 downing of the Malaysian jet and death of its 298 passengers and crew over eastern Ukraine is isolating Russian President Vladimir Putin, who denies his government is helping the separatists. The US says the crash was probably caused by a Russian-supplied missile, while Ukraine and its allies in the EU and US say the rebels have contaminated crash site evidence by moving bodies and wreckage there.
“We are confident there’s going to be strong action,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union” programme, referring to the EU plans.
German Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel said yesterday that bank accounts held in Europe by oligarchs close to Putin should be frozen.
Dutch and Australian investigators had planned to reach the crash site yesterday. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe cited the “security situation” in the area around the site for the investigating team’s delay.
“During the morning, new information arrived and, based on that which indicated fighting in the area of the crash site, it was decided to not go to the crash site as it was too unsafe,” Rutte, whose country lost 194 people on the flight, told a news conference yesterday. “First signals are that there is heavy fighting.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin denied government forces were fighting rebels in the area and said they were respecting a 40-kilometre (24-mile) unilateral ceasefire perimeter around the crash site.
Klimkin said his country’s military forces needed “more assistance on the ground” from the US, without providing details. “We see the United States as a friend and partner,” Klimkin said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” programme yesterday.
The State Department released photos by e-mail it said were evidence of Russian forces firing artillery and rockets across the border at Ukraine’s army, following similar allegations on July 24.
The four images purportedly show ground scarring from multiple rocket launchers on the Russian side pointed toward Ukraine and what the US says are corresponding impacts on Ukrainian territory. They also show self-propelled artillery only found in Russian military units and blast craters near Ukrainian forces, according to the State Department.
US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a phone call today to stop the flow of weapons as well as rocket and artillery fire from Russia into Ukraine, according to a statement from the State Department. Kerry didn’t accept Lavrov’s denial that weapons from Russia were contributing to the conflict, the statement said.
Kerry also stressed his support for a mutual ceasefire verified by the OSCE, while reaffirming US backing of an international investigation on the airliner downing, according to a second statement issued by the State Department.
The US delegation to the OSCE said yesterday on its website that Russia also continues to send arms into Ukraine. It also complained that Ukraine’s neighbour would only accept OSCE observers at two checkpoints along the countries’ shared frontier, which is almost 2,000 kilometers in length.
“This will not provide any real accounting of Russia’s massive flows of illegal arms, funding, and personnel,” US ambassador to the OSCE Daniel Baer said in a website statement.
Ukrainian Defence Ministry spokesman Andriy Lysenko said yesterday government troops would free the eastern part of the country from the rebels “in the nearest future.”
Government troops killed about 20 rebels and destroyed eight vehicles in Horlivka, Lysenko told a news conference in Kiev. Lysenko said earlier that “Donetsk will be next.”
Ukrainian troops were also fighting in Shakhtersk, about 20 kilometres away from the crash site, local news wire Novosti Donbasa reported yesterday. That would put the fighting right at the edge of the crash’s 40-kilometer ceasefire perimeter.
Unarmed Australian police were given a green light to join the planned Dutch-led team to recover remains of victims and remove wreckage, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said.
“This is a risky mission, no doubt about that,” Abbott said in a press conference yesterday. “Our objective is principally to recover the bodies. We will stay as long as we can to do a professional job but we won’t stay a moment longer than we need to.”
Abbott had said on July 25 that some of the Australian police sent to the crash site may be armed. The Malaysian government said in a statement it was also sending police personnel to the crash site as part of the team.
About 49 personnel, including 11 police from Australia, will be dispatched to recover bodies and evidence, Abbott said in Canberra. There were 27 Australians on Flight MH17.
Data retrieved from flight recorders indicate the Malaysian jet was hit multiple times by shrapnel from a missile explosion, CBS News reported July 26, citing a European air safety official it didn’t name.
A two-day reconnaissance of the site has been completed by Australian personnel, Special Envoy Angus Houston said in an interview on ABC television yesterday, adding that Russian- backed rebels in the area were professional and cooperative.
The UK government said the crash site may have been altered.
“Worryingly, we are aware of information suggesting that separatists were planning to scatter parts of other aircraft on the site,” the UK Foreign Office said in an e-mailed statement. — Bloomberg