Explosions rang out near the crash site of downed flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine as international investigators arrived for the first time in nearly a week after Kiev announced a surprise one-day halt to its offensive against rebels.
A small team of Dutch and Australian experts accompanied by international monitors reached the vast site of the doomed Malaysia Airlines jet after days of fierce fighting between government forces and rebels had stopped them reaching the area.
The Dutch justice ministry said the team was so far only a “reconnaissance” mission but would hopefully pave the way for more experts to visit soon.
But in a sign of the continuing insecurity, an AFP team following the convoy heard loud blasts just a few kilometres away from the site and saw black smoke rising from a village close to where some of the plane wreckage is lying.
Ukraine’s military had earlier announced a “day of quiet” across the entire east after a plea from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to halt fighting in the area of the crash, where remains from some of the 298 victims lie festering in the sun two weeks after the jet was shot down over rebel territory.
But Kiev – which has blamed rebels controlling the site for blocking the probe – warned that insurgents had continued shelling its troops positions around the region.
On a visit to the Netherlands, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak appealed for an “immediate cessation in and around the crash site by both Ukraine and separatist forces”.
The West says the insurgents likely shot down the plane with a missile on July 17, but Russia and the rebels said it could have been blown out of sky by a Ukrainian jet.
MPs in Kiev ratified agreements with The Hague and Canberra that could result in the two nations sending about 950 armed personnel to secure the site where many of their nationals died.
The Netherlands has already ruled out the possibility of sending in troops as “unrealistic” over fears they could become entangled in Ukraine’s murky conflict, which has claimed more than 1100 lives in more than three months of bitter fighting.
Meanwhile, Russia’s aviation authorities said a team of their own experts had arrived in Kiev and were hoping to reach the crash site.
Elsewhere, negotiators from Kiev and Moscow were set to fly into the Belarussian capital Minsk for possible talks with rebels over access to the site, but there appeared little hope for a major breakthrough.
Separatist leaders have said they would be willing to meet the so-called trilateral Contact Group – which includes international monitors and Russian and Ukrainian representatives – but demanded that Kiev withdraw its troops from their territory as a first condition.
Despite the brief lull, the death toll continued to climb, with Ukraine’s army saying 11 soldiers were killed in the past 24 hours and local authorities saying clashes in the rebel stronghold of Lugansk left three civilians dead, including a five-year-old child, in the same period.
The rising toll comes against the background of fresh threats from the West that they could tighten the screws further on Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict.
A defiant Moscow warned on Wednesday that fresh EU and US sanctions targeting its vital energy, arms and finance sector would backfire on the US and lead to energy price hikes in Europe.
In a statement released by the White House, the G7 powers urged the Kremlin to “choose the path of de-escalation” in Ukraine.
If Russia “does not do so, however, we remain ready to further intensify the costs of its adverse actions”, the G7 statement said.
But the Russian foreign ministry blasted the US for hitting the Kremlin over its “independent policies that Washington finds inconvenient”.