Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte halted the search for victims' remains and belongings at the eastern Ukraine site of the July 17 Malaysia Airlines passenger jet crash, saying Wednesday that the intensifying clashes in the area made it too dangerous for the forensic investigators to work.
A team of 110 Dutch, Australian and Malaysian forensics experts has had access to the crash site for less than a week. It's been able to recover only a few more remains from the miles-wide site where the Boeing 777 was brought down by a surface-to-air missile, killing all 298 people on board.
Fighting between Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russia separatists who control the area where Flight 17 debris and victims fell has intensified since the disaster that U.S. intelligence blames on the insurgents and their Russian backers. The BUK antiaircraft missile launcher used to down the plane was believed to have been provided to the insurgents by Russia.
Ukrainian troops have been making gains against the separatists in recent weeks, recovering more than half of the territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that militants seized in March and April.
"The security situation in eastern Ukraine and the MH-17 crash site has worsened by the day,” Rutte told journalists at a news conference in The Hague, according to Dutch and Australian media. “That is making it impossible for experts to do their work."
Australia's special envoy on the MH-17 disaster, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, told Australia's SBS broadcaster that the forensics team had done what it could since gaining access to the crash site July 31 after fighting and separatists' roadblocks delayed their search for two weeks.
"Our purpose was to recover remains from the site. We did this swiftly and thoroughly, while it was safe to do so," Houston said. "When search and security conditions improve, we will conduct a final inspection to ensure that we have recovered all identifiable remains."
Earlier Wednesday, the head of the Dutch team combing the crash site told reporters in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, that no human remains had been recovered in the last few days.
Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg said local residents had done a more thorough job of collecting belongings and forensic material than previously thought, and he appealed for any items taken from the crash scene to be handed over to the international investigators for possible help in identifying victims. He said the relatively intact remains of 150 victims and more than 300 body parts had been sent to a Dutch military lab for identification.
The Netherlands and Australia suffered the largest loss of life among nationals in the tragedy, with 196 and 38 citizens killed. Separatists are widely suspected of shooting down the plane, mistakenly believing they were firing on a Ukrainian military transport.
The jet was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, when it was shot down over farmland near the village of Hrabove in the Donetsk region.