Civilian toll mounts in Ukraine fighting as MH17 probe goes on
Brutal fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels continued to take a deadly toll on civilians in east Ukraine on Sunday, as international experts once again combed woods and fields at the crash site of downed flight MH17.
Some 70 Dutch and Australian police investigators spent a third day trawling through wreckage for more unrecovered remains of the 298 people killed when the Malaysian passenger jet was blown out of the sky over separatist territory almost three weeks ago.
After days of fierce fighting prevented experts reaching the scene of the disaster, the Dutch-led probe has now bulked up to near full-strength with sniffer dogs and refrigerated ambulance vans brought in as they scramble to make up for lost time.
Search crews continue to turn up body parts and personal belongings scattered across some 20 square kilometres (eight square miles) and those leading the probe say it could take some three more weeks despite 220 coffins already being flown to the Netherlands for identification.
Around the rebel-held location the boom of shellfire nearby -- which forced a small crew of investigators to abandon part of the site Saturday -- shows that the conflict that has claimed over 1,150 lives since mid-April continues to tear apart the former Soviet state.
The United States accuses insurgents of blowing the airliner out of the sky on July 17 with a surface-to-air missile likely supplied by Russia, while Moscow and the rebels have pointed the finger at the Ukrainian military.
Ukraine's military reported that its positions in the region continued to come under heavy bombardment, including shellfire allegedly from across the porous border with former Soviet master Russia.
Government forces have made major gains over the past month and say they are getting close to cutting off the main rebel stronghold of Donetsk from the Russian border and a second insurgent bastion of Lugansk.
Kiev's military top brass has promised to stamp out the insurgency in the near future but analysts warn the fighting could drag on as rebels have holed up in major cities and pledged to battle to the death.
But it is civilians in the blighted region who are bearing the brunt of the violence.
Authorities in the besieged rebel bastion of Lugansk said three civilians were killed and eight wounded in shelling over the past 24 hours.
The city of some 420,000 is trapped in a punishing government blockade with the mayor warning of a looming "humanitarian catastrophe" as electricity has failed and water and fuel supplies been exhausted.
In Donetsk -- also surrounded by Kiev government forces -- an AFP correspondent on Saturday saw the mutilated body of dead woman lying in a quiet street after mortar explosions tore through a residential suburb.
International shock waves from the crisis continue to reverberate with tensions between Russia and the West at their highest point since the Cold War.
The United States and European Union have hit Moscow with the toughest sanctions seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union over the Kremlin's alleged arming and instigation of the separatist rebellion.
But the punishing measures are yet to quell the fighting and US President Barack Obama on Friday expressed "deep concerns" about Moscow's increased support for the insurgents in a phone call with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
Putin -- who views Ukraine's pivot westwards as a fundamental threat to Russia -- lashed out at the punitive sanctions as "counterproductive", saying they would damage bilateral cooperation and international stability.
Russia -- which risks seeing its fragile economy slip into recession following the sanctions -- has warned that measures will backfire on Western interests, suggesting that gas prices to the EU would rise.
Some EU diplomats have warned that the sanctions could actually embolden Putin by convincing him he has nothing to lose by going all-in over the Ukraine crisis.
Stoking those fears, the Pentagon and NATO have said Russia was continuing to reinforce its military presence along the border with Ukraine.