HRABOVE Ukraine (Reuters) - Four Dutch experts and local emergency services made a start on Monday recovering personal belongings from the crash site of Malaysia Airlines MH17 last summer in east Ukraine, carting away boxes of personal possessions despite fighting nearby.
But the leader of the Dutch team coordinating the repatriation mission said the aim was still to get a Dutch team on site to comb the crash area, despite the fighting between government troops and separatist rebels.
“The State Emergency Services managed to recover many personal belongings, nine boxes of a cubic meter each, from the crash site,” Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, head of the Dutch repatriation mission, said in an interview on Dutch television.
“(There was) jewelry, watches, credit cards, a driving license, a passport, an iPad, photos - things that really should be with relatives,” he added.
But, he conceded, a Dutch team might not be able to get to the site until spring because the cold weather makes it inaccessible.
“We want to go back to the site. If it’s not before the winter, then it’s after the winter,” he said.
The experts said they were on hand to advise the local Emergencies Ministry team combing the wreckage in the fields where the Boeing 777 was brought down on July 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew, a Reuters correspondent on the scene said.
Two-thirds of the victims were Dutch nationals and the Dutch Safety Board is leading the investigation.
A short but intense exchange of artillery fire played out near the grassy fields where the team collected items such as books, toothpaste, playing cards, a plastic watch and a stick of antiperspirant. Many items were too charred to identify.
Black smoke rose in the distance less than 5 km (3 miles) from the site, despite a ceasefire agreed on Sept. 5 between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian separatists they are fighting.
Aalbersberg said the team was able to visit two of the three villages where the plane’s wreckage was strewn.
Although ceasefire violations have been sporadic around strategically important locations in east Ukraine, they have led to a decrease in fighting.
Emergency Ministry officials loaded the recovered items on a small cargo truck to be transported from the fields near the village of Hrabove and returned to the victims’ families.
Armed pro-Russian rebels stood around the site while workers from the European rights and security watchdog OSCE monitored the recovery process.
The Dutch forensics teams in the Netherlands have identified 272 victims of the crash but additional remains are still believed to be in the area.
Aalbersberg said local emergency services had done a good job recovering passengers’ bodies in the days after the crash, despite initial reports of looting.
“These emergency services were different from the large group of people who were there in the first days after the crash. These people did a great job (collecting bodies), also by our standards.”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday he was furious that Dutch investigators had been unable to finish work in the area because of fighting between the separatists and government forces.
Separatists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic fighting to split east Ukraine from Kiev on Monday said 36 civilians, including one child, were killed in shelling of the territory under their control last week. More than 3,500 people have been killed in the conflict.
The aircraft, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, is widely believed to have been hit by a surface-to-air missile fired from separatist-held territory. Kiev blames the incident on the rebels and accuses Moscow of arming them. The rebels and Moscow deny the accusations.
Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt, Writing by Timothy Heritage, Editing by Thomas Grove, Angus MacSwan and Gunna Dickson