Dogs join search for MH17 victims

By Anna Malpas

Seventy experts also combing field as officials seek approval to use Australian drone while war rages on.

Pro-Russian rebels shoot in the air as they celebrate Paratroopers' Day in Donetsk yesterday. Photo / AP
Pro-Russian rebels shoot in the air as they celebrate Paratroopers' Day in Donetsk yesterday. Photo / AP

A sniffer dog zigzagged swiftly across a field overgrown with grass as police experts in blue uniforms fanned out to methodically work their way across a debris-strewn field in eastern Ukraine.

In the middle distance the boom of sporadic shelling disturbed the quiet but the investigators focused on the ground as they occasionally crouched down to pack objects into bags.

This was the second day of the stalled international hunt for remains and clues at the crash site of downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, with fragments still lying in wheat fields and flower-dotted meadows in rebel-held territory.

More than two weeks after the doomed flight was blown out of the sky some 70 investigators from the Netherlands and Australia - which between them lost 221 citizens of the total 298 on board the jet - were scouring a small part of the debris strewn for kilometres around.

More than 220 coffins have been sent back to the Netherlands but body parts from some victims of the disaster still lie under the searing summer sun.

Now the investigators have come in better equipped and a refrigerated ambulance van stood waiting to receive its grim cargo.

Two sniffer dogs have arrived from the Netherlands and two more are expected soon from Belgium.

The Australians have at least one propeller-driven drone but are still waiting for permission to deploy it.

"Dogs can smell a big area in a relatively short time so it will help us getting the human remains out as fast as possible," said Dennis Muller, a press officer for the Dutch investigators.

Journalists were asked to keep several hundred metres back from the main search party and press briefings were given on the entrance lane to a chicken farm that is at the centre of the site.

All the time Kalashnikov-carrying rebels controlling the site kept a watchful eye on journalists, shouting at them to get under some trees when an unidentified plane flew overhead.

While work continued undisturbed for hours around the main impact site and more remains were found elsewhere, the battle between the pro-Russian insurgents and Ukrainian government troops raged on.

Shelling forced some of the probe team to hurriedly abandon a village where parts of the plane are lying.

"We heard at a distance of approximately 2km incoming artillery from where we were and that was too close to continue," says Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's mission in Ukraine.

"It was close enough to decide to leave. The artillery impact was very loud and the ground shaking. It's not an experience you have every day."

As shelling was heard in the distance, some 40 villagers from Grabove on the edge of the site gathered around a wooden cross to hold a service for an Orthodox saint's day.

A wreath decorated with purple roses and dedicated "to the victims of the disaster" by the residents of the nearest town was propped up next to the cross, along with soft toys.

"Are you scared? We're scared too," said Svetlana, holding a bunch of yellow gladioli as the chanted prayer of the priest mixed with distant gunfire.

- AFP

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