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Explosions rock east Ukraine as EU mulls sanctions

Heavy shelling rocked several cities in insurgent-held east Ukraine on Tuesday (29 July), as the EU moved to punish Russia for stoking the worst crisis in the former Soviet state since its independence.

DONETSK, Ukraine: Heavy shelling rocked several cities in insurgent-held east Ukraine on Tuesday (29 July), as the EU moved to punish Russia for stoking the worst crisis in the former Soviet state since its independence.

The intensifying fighting forced international experts to scrap their plans to reach the crash site of Malaysian flight MH17 for the third consecutive day. The remains of some of the 298 victims still lie at the site 12 days after the disaster.


Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country is leading the probe into the crash that killed 193 of its citizens, called Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko to ask him to call off the fighting that is blocking access to the zone. "We want to get to the crash site as quickly as possible to get the victims and bring them home," a Dutch government spokesman said.

The Ukrainian military denied it was carrying out hostilities near the vast MH17 site. Instead, it said pockets of insurgents are continuing to fire on Ukrainian positions from the towns of Snizhne, Torez and Shakhtarsk, all within about 30 kilometres (18 miles) of the site.

Key insurgent-held cities further afield came under heavy bombardment, as the government pushed its offensive to regain control of the eastern industrial heartland. In Donetsk - the biggest rebel stronghold of a million people just 60 kilometres away from the crash site - AFP journalists heard at least three loud explosions which sent Dutch and Australian police officers on a hotel terrace running for cover.

The Donetsk city council said a residential block and an administrative building in the city centre were damaged by shelling at around lunchtime. No details were given about casualties. About 45 kilometres north in Gorlivka, local authorities said 17 people had been killed by shelling in the last 24 hours. Some 43 people were also wounded in the city, local authorities said, without giving details on which party fired the shots.

Heavy fighting is ongoing in another rebel stronghold Lugansk where local authorities reported five killed and eight wounded due to "constant firing" on the town over the past 24 hours.

The military said it lost 10 soldiers while 55 were injured in the latest clashes. The intensified combat came a day after rebels claimed that pro-Kiev forces had regained control over part of the crash site -- a claim denied by the Ukrainian military.

Amid the chaos, Dutch authorities warned the remains of some victims may never be recovered. "I believe the chances are not very good," Dutch police chief Gerard Bouman told parliament.

'POSSIBLE WAR CRIME'

Witnesses have uploaded 150 photos and videos to a Dutch police server set up to help piece together the downing of flight MH17, a spokeswoman said. The police issued an online appeal for images of the crash site -- before, during and after -- to aid a reconstruction of events.

Kiev said on Monday that data from the doomed plane's black boxes showed the crash was caused by shrapnel from a rocket explosion. The information from the flight recorders was decrypted in Britain after pro-Russian rebels handed them to Malaysian officials.

UN rights chief Navi Pillay condemned the plane's downing as a possible war crime and demanded a full and independent investigation. The Red Cross has said Ukraine is now in civil war -- a classification that would make parties in the conflict liable to prosecution for war crimes.

More than 1,100 people have been killed in the fighting that has engulfed eastern Ukraine over the past three months, the United Nations said, a toll that does not include the plane crash victims.

The insurgents launched their bloody bid to join Russia as Kiev veered decisively towards the West after deposing pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February. They swiftly overran vast swathes of the mainly Russian-speaking east in April but government forces have begun to regain ground, with key city Slavyansk recaptured early this month.

TIGHTENING THE SCREWS

Western powers meanwhile are moving to tighten the screws on Russia, which they blame for fanning the rebellion by supplying it with weapons. The EU agreed on Tuesday to add four more close business associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin to a sanctions list, the first step in an anticipated ratcheting up of pressure on Moscow.

Envoys from the bloc's 28 states meeting in Brussels are expected to widen sanctions by approving sector-wide embargoes in four key areas: access to capital markets, defence, dual-use goods and sensitive technologies, including in the energy sector. The sanctions are likely to sink Russia -- which posted zero growth in the second quarter after a first-quarter contraction -- into recession.

Washington believes Russia supplied the missile system used to attack MH17 and has released photographs to bolster a claim that Moscow was taking a direct role in the conflict by firing into Ukraine.

Late on Monday, the United States also accused Russia of violating a 1987 arms control treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile. Russia has denied the Western accusations, while rebel commander Igor Strelkov has said his side had nothing to do with the MH17 disaster.

"I don't know how the plane was downed, by what means. I only know that it was downed and that's it. The only thing I can say is that my men did not down it," said Strelkov, who is known to the Ukrainian secret service as Russian colonel Igor Girkin. He denies that he is working directly for Russia.

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