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MH17: Clashes again block Dutch, Australian investigators

Fighting in eastern Ukraine has again prevented an international police team from reaching the site of the Malaysian airliner that crashed 11 days ago. Ukraine accuses rebels of tampering with forensic evidence.

France said on Monday it, together with Britain, Germany, Italy and the US, was contemplating tougher sanctions against Russia for its stance during Ukraine's multifaceted crisis.

Kyiv said its forces were still trying to dislodge pro-Russian rebels from the crash site.

French President Francois Hollande's office issued the statement ahead of EU consultations on Tuesday on whether to exclude Russian state banks from the bloc's capital markets and embargo arms and energy technology deliveries to Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of stalling the deployment of Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) monitors at border posts and denied that Russia was sending arms and fighters to help rebels.

OSCE monitors frustrated

OSCE deputy head Alexander Hug said the international team of Australian and Dutch police and forensic experts was forced to turn back on Monday when it reached Shakhtarsk, a town 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the fields where the Boeing 777 impacted on July 17, killing all 298 occupants.

"We are sick and tired of being interrupted by gunfights, despite the fact that we have agreed that there should be a ceasefire [in the area]," said Hug.

Australia's foreign minister visits Kyiv

Visiting Kyiv, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of Australia, which lost 28 nationals in the crash, said she hoped Russia would use its influence on rebels to allow access.

"We'll be seeking assurances that any military action doesn't compromise our humanitarian mission," Bishop told a news conference.

Ukrainians flee rebel-held area

Shakhtarsk residents fled in cars from the rebel-held town as it was hit by shells, according to the news agency Associated Press.

The Ukrainian defense ministry said its troops had entered the town, but its western entrance remained under rebel control. Fighting was also continuing in Snizhne, another town closer to the crash site, the ministry said.

A rebel leader, Vladimir Antyufeyev, said Kyiv government forces were also advancing on the main rebel-held city of Donetsk.

Ukraine Security Council spokesman, Andriy Lysenko, said government troops had also reached the town of Torez - near Shakhtarsk - while fighting was continuing around the village of Snezhnoye - close to the site where on July 17 a missile was presumably fired at MH17.

Troops were also readying for an assault on Gorlovka, a rebel stronghold north of Donetsk, Lysenko said.

Many residents have fled Donetsk, fearing a showdown between troops and rebels. Donetsk local officials said artillery fire had damaged residential blocks.

At the UN, Russian envoy Vitaly Churkin accused Ukrainian forces of violating a recent UN resolution calling on all sides to cease fighting around the crash site.

"Civilians are dying by the dozens," Churkin said in reference to the fighting.

War crime if shot down

A claim by the Kyiv government that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 had suffered a "massive explosive decompression" drew no comment on Monday from investigators in Britain where the plane's recorders are being examined.

The UN's human rights chief Navi Pillay said the presumed shooting down of MH17 might amount to a war crime.

Judicial officials of 11 countries that lost citizens in the crash met in The Hague on Monday and agreed to set up a joint prosecutions team. Also present were Unterpol and Europol police representatives, according to the news agency AFP.

Parents of an Australian crash victim left flowers on wreckage on Saturday (pictured).

British troops to exercise in Poland

Britain's foreign and defense secretaries Philip Hammond and Michael Fallon visited Warsaw on Monday and said British troops were take part in major joint maneuvers in Poland in October as part of NATO exercises.

Last week, the presidents of nine Baltic seaboard NATO members that were once Soviet-ruled met in Warsaw and pressed for a firmer regional defense strategy.

ipj/kms (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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