MH17 victims search winds down in Ukraine

PATIENT SEARCH: Australian police search the fields for human remains with their Malaysian and Dutch counterparts.
PATIENT SEARCH: Australian police search the fields for human remains with their Malaysian and Dutch counterparts.

The search for human remains at the MH17 crash site in eastern Ukraine is winding down, with an expectation among the Australian search party here that they will be withdrawn as early as Thursday or Friday.

The rationale is based on a fall-away in the remains being found and a heightened security risk for the 100-plus team of forensic and other experts as they attempt a grim job in the midst of a tense separatist war.

"The risks are getting higher and the rewards are getting lower," a member of the Australian team with access to the leadership's strategising told Fairfax Media.

With the passing of each day, rebels who control the 50-square-kilometre crash site have been making it more difficult for a meaningful search to continue - on Monday the searchers spent most of the day pinned down by fighting and managed just 30 minutes of actual searching out of almost 12 hours away from their secure base.

The problem, as the rebels read the landscape, is that their stronghold of Donetsk, the local regional centre, is coming under siege by Ukrainian forces and a full-scale battle for the city is imminent.

The crash site, on the eastern approach to the city, is held by the rebels, as are a string of villages, including Rassypnoe. With the Ukrainian military trying to squeeze the rebels, the Australian searchers and their Dutch counterparts are getting in the way of the war.

Only a dozen or so Australians are to take part in the search on Wednesday. In what will be a marked departure from the mission's field-by-field search, they are set to focus on this village, the so-called cockpit village, going house to house and asking the locals for either information or for any personal effects of the 298 lost passengers and crew that they might "have been safe-keeping until an official party chanced by".

The convoy took all of three hours to cover the 90 kilometres from their base to Rassypnoe on Wednesday morning, where the searchers mustered for a briefing.

The Australian and Dutch investigators then milled in the street while OSCE conflict monitors went into the village, distributing Russian-language flyers asking for possessions or information about where the possessions might be.  After a time, people started to emerge.

At 2.30pm local time, the convoy was attempting to make its way to the smashed cockpit section of the Boeing 777, but gunfire prevented it from continuing.

A deal struck with the rebels to allow OSCE conflict monitors to approach villagers with fliers seeking information about the flight produced little for investigators.

Apart from a few small parts of the aircraft, the only personal item handed in was a small silver necklace which a villager said he had found in his potato patch.

At 3pm, the convoy was allowed to proceed. But instead of continuing to the cockpit site, the convoy headed north to its base at Soledar.

Each evening the next day's search plan is negotiated on behalf of the Australians and the Dutch by conflict monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, with rebel representatives.

Apart from dictating where the search can be carried out, those talks also have dictated the actual number of searchers that can be in a given field at any time.

Sydney Morning Herald