SHAKHTYORSK, Ukraine — Fierce fighting on Monday gripped a dozen towns in eastern Ukraine, blocking an international police force from reaching the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which is now near, or even in the middle of, a battlefield.
Fighting near the crash site forced a convoy of 20 cars carrying Dutch and Australian police officers to turn back. The police were hoping to secure the area to permit recovery of remaining bodies from the jetliner crash and to enable an international investigation. The road to the site is now violently contested between pro-Russia rebel fighters and the Ukrainian military because it is also a route for supplies to reach the rebels holding Donetsk, the provincial capital, and for their wounded to be evacuated.
The convoy set out from Donetsk and stopped in Shakhtyorsk, one of the towns being fought over Monday, when artillery explosions could be heard ahead. The convoy started forward again, but turned back before reaching the crash site because of the risk to the delegation, even though the separatists were willing to let it proceed, apparently toward Ukrainian army positions.
Fighting raged farther east along the highway as well, overnight and through the day. Outside Shakhty-20, a coal mining town on the road, a photographer who was passing through Monday morning saw the scorched hulks of Ukrainian armored personnel carriers in the road, and the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers lying about.
The Ukrainian offensive was intensive enough that the separatists’ military commander — a Russian citizen who uses the name Igor Strelkov, or Igor the Shooter — held a news conference Monday to deny rumors that he had fled the city, or that important positions had fallen. “Everywhere, the fight was tough,” he said. “They attacked from the north and the south. As a result of the fierce fighting, most of the advance was pushed back.”
The Malaysian airliner was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, on July 17 when it fell from the sky over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard. Ukrainian and U.S. officials say a Russian-made surface-to-air missile fired from territory held by separatist rebels brought the jetliner down. The Kremlin and the rebels say the Ukrainian government was responsible.
Asked at the news conference if he had shot down the plane, Mr. Strelkov said he would not have known how, even though he once served as a guard in an air defense unit. He also denied that his forces had the type of missile that the United States says brought down the plane.
In Kiev, Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the government’s security council, said the Ukrainian offensive had made gains, capturing a hilltop World War II monument complex that rebels have used for weeks as a stronghold. The claim could not be independently verified. In Donetsk, Mr. Strelkov said the site had not fallen.
Though there were clear signs of fighting near the debris fields of Flight 17, Mr. Lysenko insisted Monday that government forces were respecting an agreement to cease hostilities within a 24-mile radius of the wreckage site.
The shooting down of Flight 17 may amount to a war crime, according to Navi Pillay, the top U.N. human rights official. Ms. Pillay, in Geneva, assailed the pro-Russia rebels Monday for imposing a “reign of fear and terror” in the region.united nations - United States - North America - Asia - Russia - Eastern Europe - Europe - Southeast Asia - Western Europe - United Nations Security Council - Ukraine - Navi Pillay - Netherlands - Malaysia - Kiev - Donetsk