The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine may amount to a war crime, the United Nations’ human rights chief said Monday as an international police team abandoned attempts to reach the crash sites.
For a second day, a delegation of Australian and Dutch investigators and forensic experts were forced to turn back amid intense fighting between government troops and pro-Russian rebels.
The team stopped in Shakhtarsk, a town about 20 miles from the fields where the Boeing 777 came down on July 17, allegedly by a rebel-fired rocket, killing all 298 people on board.
Navy Pillay, the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, described the incident as a “violation of international law” that, “given the prevailing circumstances, may amount to a war crime.”
Her comments came as U.N. monitors unveiled an updated death toll in eastern Ukraine of at least 1,129 people, with an additional 3,442 people wounded in the conflict since mid-April, according to a monthly report released Monday. The U.N. also recorded incidents of torture, executions, child abuse and allegations of sexual violence.
On the ground, the fighting shows little signs of abating. Government troops have been trying to regain control over the area where the plane was downed. Kiev has accused rebels of tampering with evidence in a bid to cover up their alleged role in bringing down the passenger jet.
At least eight civilians were killed overnight in fighting and shelling in two cities held by separatists, according to officials. Five died and 15 were injured by artillery strikes in Luhansk, and three were killed in Donetsk as a result of clashes, the city’s government said.
The thwarting of the Australian-Dutch probe for a second day has provoked concern over impediments to a speedy investigation.
Evidence could be lost if fighting continues, said Australia’s deputy commissioner of national security, Andrew Colvin, and the chances of finding the remains of victims not yet recovered grows slimmer as time passes.
Also on Monday, Ukrainian officials said that data from the MH17 flight recorders shows that the plane crashed because of an explosive loss of pressure after being punctured by shrapnel from a missile. The U.S. and Ukraine say that pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine probably shot the aircraft down by mistake.
Ukraine said on Sunday it was trying to dislodge the rebels but denied it was fighting near the crash sites, saying the separatists had put the team off by falsely claiming the army was operating nearby.
The unarmed Australian and Dutch police investigators, guided by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has already made a short visit to the sites, needed to be assured of a sizable window of time at the sites to complete the probe, Colvin said.
“We don’t want to put our officers in danger for the sake of a brief look at the site,” he said. “We’ve had a look at the site already ... The next stage of this is to get in and start the examination.”
Speaking at a news conference on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he hoped that an investigation into the downed Malaysian jetliner, which Western leaders say was almost certainly shot down by Russian-backed separatists, would be objective.
He also hit out at Western-backed sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis.
“I assure you, we will overcome any difficulties that may arise in certain areas of the economy, and maybe we will become more independent and more confident in our own strength,” he said.
Lavrov added Russia would not impose retaliatory measures or overreact to economic sanctions. “We can’t ignore it. But to fall into hysterics and respond to a blow with a blow is not worthy of a major country.”
Members of the European Union, angered by the downing of the flight on its way from Amsterdam, are expected to reach a final decision on Tuesday on measures, including closing the bloc’s capital markets to Russian state banks, an embargo on arms sales and restrictions on dual-use and energy technologies.
Al Jazeera and wire services