Local emergency workers recovered human remains and aircraft parts Sunday from the site where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine, four months after the plane was downed, killing 298 people.
Dutch inspectors had hoped to examine the crash site themselves, but they remain concerned about the safety of their staff in the conflict zone. The inspectors commissioned local State Emergency Service workers to search the area further after an initial operation recovered many of the bodies.
Pieces of the plane's engine, cabin and a seat were clearly identifiable among the charred wreckage, said a reporter with the French news agency AFP.
About two thirds of the passengers of the ill-fated plane, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was downed on July 17, were Dutch nationals.
Wreckage headed for Netherlands
Pieces of wreckage were taken to the train station in nearby Torez and have been partially loaded onto wagons, the Dutch government said. The debris from the airliner will eventually be transported to the government-controlled city of Kharkiv and then flown to the Netherlands.
Dutch experts eventually intend to reconstruct a section of the Boeing 777 airliner.
Underlining the difficult security situation in the area, Dutch authorities said a mortar had landed 1,500 meters (yards) from the crash site on Sunday.
A rebel official said the crew of about 15 people from Donetsk's emergency ministry hoped to finish the operations in the next 10 days and that they would focus on the largest chunks of fuselage first.
“The crash area is large, so we do not intend to recover all the wreckage,” said Safety Board spokesman Wim van der Weegen. “We've got a specific number of items we would like to recover.”
He did not specify what items he was referring to.
The team, being supervised by about a dozen Dutch officials at the site, also faces a race to complete the recovery effort before harsh winter conditions in the former Soviet state make it difficult to continue.
Dutch authorities are leading both the air accident and criminal investigations into the downing of the plane.
Kyiv has accused pro-Russian separatists of shooting down the plane with an surface-to-air missile. Russia said a Ukrainian military aircraft shot down MH17.
Shelling near Donetsk
Around the region Sunday, fighting dragged on between government troops and pro-Russian rebels, with the Ukrainian military saying that six soldiers were injured as its positions came under mortar fire 26 times during the night.
Artillery fire was heard across many parts of rebel-held Donetsk later Sunday, a Ukrainian government statement said, after Kyiv warned again of rebel preparations for a fresh offensive.
A Reuters witness in central Donetsk heard several dozen blasts of artillery fire, although it was unclear who had fired the shells or what was under attack.
In separatist-controlled parts of neighboring Luhansk region, three volunteers fighting alongside Ukrainian forces were killed, the Interior Ministry in Kyiv said.
Shelling from both sides has repeatedly put in question the continued viability of a cease-fire, agreed in a deal signed on September 5 to end a war that has killed more than 4,000 people since April. Government forces and rebels have accused each other of violating the terms of the truce, raising fears it could collapse entirely.
Warning of possible offensive
Before the latest reports of shelling, a Ukrainian military spokesman said on Sunday the weekend had been calmer than in previous days, but warned again of a buildup among separatist forces.
“Compared with previous days, the number and intensity (of shelling) fell, but there are signs of rebels and Russian forces preparing for an offensive,” Andriy Lysenko said in a briefing in Kyiv.
Lysenko's comments came after NATO's commander in Europe, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, said last week that "columns of Russian equipment, primarily Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian combat troops" were entering Ukraine.
The European Union and United States have slapped the toughest sanctions on Moscow since the collapse of the Soviet Union over what they see as its meddling in Ukraine.
EU foreign ministers will again discuss the situation in Ukraine at a meeting in Brussels on Monday.
Some material for this report came from Reuters and AFP.