DONETSK, Ukraine — A team of international police officers that had been due to visit the site of the Malaysian plane disaster in eastern Ukraine canceled the trip Sunday after receiving reports of fighting in the area.
Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said it was too dangerous for the unarmed officers to travel to the site from its current location in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.
Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down with a surface-to-air missile over a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists on July 17, killing all 298 people on board. U.S. and Ukrainian officials say it was shot down by a missile from rebel territory, most likely by mistake.
While it was not immediately clear where precisely clashes had broken out, a Ukrainian defense official said Sunday that government forces are now undertaking efforts to clear the areas around the Boeing 777 crash site from separatist rebels.
Hug said the police mission, which is comprised of officers from the Netherlands and Australia, will reconsider resuming operations if security improves.
“We continue to reassess the situation continuously and we will start to redeploy tomorrow morning back to the site if the situation changes,” Hug said.
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott had said earlier Sunday that unarmed Australian police would be sent to the crash site as part of a Dutch-led police force to secure the area and help recover victims’ remains.
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Concerns about the integrity of the site were raised further on Saturday when a couple that had flown from their home in Perth, Australia, visited the wreckage-strewn fields outside the village of Hrabove and even sat down on part of the debris.
Flights from Ukraine to the Netherlands have taken 227 coffins containing victims of the plane disaster. Officials say the exact number of people held in the coffins still needs to be determined by forensic experts in the Netherlands.
Ukraine’s National Security Council spokesman Andrei Lysenko said that Ukrainian troops were engaging rebels in fighting at several locations Sunday, including near the town of Debaltseve, which is 15 miles (25 kilometers) northwest of the crash site.
There was also fighting on the outskirts of Horlivka, one of the separatists’ key strongholds, Lysenko said.
Lysenko said more than 20 rebel fighters were killed and eight of their armored vehicles destroyed during fighting in Horlivka. One government soldier has been killed over the previous day’s fighting, he said.
Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Sunday that a column of Ukrainian armored personnel carriers, trucks and tanks had entered the town of Shakhtarsk, 10 miles (15 kilometers) west of the site of the crash.
Shakhtarsk is a strategic town in the area. By controlling the town, the Ukrainian army would be cutting off the regional capital, Donetsk, from the highway leading to the Russian border.
The Malaysia Airlines disaster prompted some expectation in the West that Russia would scale back its involvement in the uprising in Ukraine’s east, but 10 days later the opposite seems to be the case.
Russia launched artillery attacks from its soil into Ukraine on Friday, while the United States said it has seen powerful rocket systems moving closer to the Ukraine border.