ONETSK, Ukraine (CNN) — For a fourth straight day, unsafe conditions in eastern Ukraine kept international investigators from reaching the site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 wreckage.
Dutch forensic researchers and unarmed military police decided Wednesday that it was unsafe to travel to the crash site, said Lodewijk Hekking, spokesman for the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security.
The decision comes as Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council claims that “terrorists” — the term it uses to describe rebels — have set up firing positions and laid mines on the access road to the crash site.
This makes the work of international experts “impossible,” the agency said.
The decision by the Dutch to stay away from the site is independent of the choices that other international observers, including from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, might make.
But for the three previous days, the OSCE has joined the 50-strong team of Dutch and Australian investigators in declaring the region too dangerous to work in.
Dutch investigators have yet to lay eyes on the wreckage or the human remains believed still to be strewn across the huge debris field near the town of Torez.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said that a Russian-made missile system was used to shoot down MH17 from rebel territory on July 17. Russia and the rebels have disputed the allegations and blamed Ukraine for the crash.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte asked Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in a phone call Tuesday morning to halt the fighting around the crash site so that investigators can access it, Rutte spokesman Jean Fransman said.
There are echoes of the Cold War as pro-Russian rebels battle Ukrainian government forces in the nation’s east.
With new sanctions announced by the European Union and United States against Russia this week, the stakes are getting higher, and Moscow is getting more isolated.
“The major sanctions we’re announcing today will continue to ratchet up the pressure on Russia, including the cronies and companies supporting Russia’s illegal activities in the Ukraine,” U.S. President Barack Obama said from the White House South Lawn on Tuesday.
“In other words, today, Russia is once again isolating itself from the international community, setting back decades of genuine progress.”
The new and harder-hitting sanctions show the West’s waning patience with Russia over its disputed annexation of Crimea, its support of pro-Russian rebels and the impact of the shoot-down of Flight 17, which had many Europeans among the 298 people on board when it went down in eastern Ukraine.
Some of the new EU sanctions target eight “cronies” of Putin and three “entities” by limiting their access to EU capital markets, an EU official said on condition of anonymity. The people and entities will be named Wednesday, the official said.
Three state-owned banks were named Tuesday by Washington, meaning five of the top six financial institutions in Russia were on the sanctions list, according to a senior Obama administration official.
A parental quest
Although heavy fighting has blocked investigators from getting to the crash site, it didn’t stop the determined parents of one of the victims.
George and Angela Dyczynski braved the regional conflict and saw the wreckage over the weekend.
“We have been always protected,” George Dyczynski said. “I believe it was divine guidance.”
“We really, really promised our daughter that we will go there and that we tried to really fulfill our promises,” said Angela Dyczynski.
Despite there being no known survivors, the couple holds out hope that their daughter, Fatima, a 25-year-old aerospace engineer, is still alive.
“Fatima can only be pronounced dead when the DNA is matched with her body,” Angela Dyczynski said. “So if anybody says at the moment she is dead … it’s not correct.”
Up to this point, very few of the bodies recovered from the crash have been identified by Dutch authorities.
As of Monday, 227 coffins had been sent to the Netherlands, where forensic investigators are working to identify victims. It is unclear how many complete sets of bodies the coffins contain.
Reports of ballistic missiles
The United States and others say Russia has provided arms to rebels in eastern Ukraine, including heavy weapons such as a missile system like the one believed to have been used to down the Malaysian airliner 12 days ago.
Despite previous sanctions, the flow of weapons continues and on Tuesday the fighting entered a dangerous new phase.
A senior official within the Ukrainian counterterrorist unit told CNN on Wednesday that Tochka-U ballistic missiles were fired Tuesday toward the Saur-Mohyla area of eastern Ukraine, a strategic hill that has been the scene of fierce fighting for the past week. The Ukrainian military claimed to have captured the hill on Monday.
It’s the same area where pro-Russian rebels shot down two Ukrainian warplanes last week.
Three U.S. officials told CNN on Tuesday of reports that Ukraine’s government had used short-range ballistic missiles against the rebels over the previous two days.
The weapons have a range of about 50 miles (80 kilometers) and pack up to 1,000-pound (454-kilogram) warheads. If the reports are accurate, they are the most deadly missiles used in the conflict to date.
The U.S. officials did not specify where the missiles hit or what damage they caused.
One U.S. official said there has been no reaction from Russia.
Another of the U.S. officials said that using the missiles is “an escalation, but Ukraine has a right to defend itself.”
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin acknowledged that his country’s military has short-range missiles, but denied that the military fired any.
In a joint news conference with Klimkin, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised Ukrainian officials for proposing a peace plan that includes “serious and substantive dialogue with the Russian-backed separatists.”
Russia: Checkpoint came under fire
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website that a Russian checkpoint had come under fire from Ukrainian forces.
It says Ukrainian officers used automatic weapons and grenades at the Gukovo customs checkpoint, causing damage.
On Tuesday, Klimkin denied that Ukrainian forces had fired into Russia.
The defense minister for the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Igor Strelkov, said that there had been “extremely severe” battles between his rebel forces and the Ukrainian military in the area of Shaktarsk and Torez.
He said a number of injured rebel fighters, as well as some medical personnel, had been evacuated from Donetsk to Russia. Moscow has denied arming and supporting the rebels, but Strelkov’s words indicate that Russia is serving as a kind of haven for the rebels.
Strelkov also denied that his fighters had the weapons system needed to shoot down an airliner.
Is the Cold War back?
Despite the escalating tensions and the new sanctions, Obama said this is not part of a new Cold War.
“What it is is a very specific issue related to Russia’s unwillingness to recognize that Ukraine can chart its own path,” Obama said.
One of the senior administration officials said Russia hasn’t been this isolated “since the end of the Cold War.”
Obama said Russia could choose a different path.
“It didn’t have to come to this. It does not have to be this way,” Obama said. “This is a choice that Russia and President Putin in particular has made. … The path for a peaceful resolution to this crisis involves recognizing the sovereignty, the territorial integrity and the independence of the Ukrainian people.”