KIEV, Ukraine — For a fourth day, the international team of investigators on Wednesday abandoned their effort to reach the Malaysia Airlines crash site in eastern Ukraine due to heavy fighting, and a Ukrainian official said the approaches to the area have been mined.
Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko predicted that sometime “soon,” the army will oust the rebels currently in control of the fields and towns where the debris is scattered. But even then, he said, investigators will be delayed from going to the site until the mines, which he said have been laid by rebels, can be cleared.
Nearly two weeks after the airliner was shot down by a missile apparently fired from separatist territory, a sense of urgency to get a team of forensics experts to the wreckage, where human remains and plane parts are unguarded, keeps butting up against the dangers of a war zone.
Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman told reporters Tuesday in Kiev that “a clear plan has been developed which will allow us to carry out another powerful attempt to enter this area to conduct all activities.”
Groysman stopped short of saying the Ukrainian military was about to overrun the rebels who control the territory around the crash site, but he said he hoped that “in the next few hours, in the next 24 hours, there will be positive news in the fulfillment of this task.”
A team of about 50 experts and investigators from the Netherlands and Australia remained in Donetsk as shelling in the city struck an apartment building near their hotel.
Last week, monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said access to the site was quite good.
But this week, the Ukrainian military is in the midst of a major offensive against the rebels, and some of the fiercest fighting has been in the general area where the plane came down in pieces on July 17. The Boeing 777 was carrying 298 passengers and crew en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.
The wreckage and what officials suspect are the remains of dozens of passengers and crew are about 40 miles from Donetsk.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday protested the fighting near the crash site, saying that the Ukrainian government was trying to impede the inquiry into the attack.
Ukrainian officials insist that government troops are observing a no-fire zone in a 25-mile perimeter around the crash site.
“The point is that this area is in the control of terrorists,” Andriy Lysenko, a military spokesman, told reporters at a briefing. “We can’t guarantee the safety of the experts.”
The United Nations estimates more than 1,100 people have been killed since fighting began in April.
In Donetsk, heavy fighting continued during the day, including in the city center, which is a rebel stronghold where Kiev forces in recent days have been making incursions.
Three people were killed and 15 people were injured in fighting since late Monday night, the city said.
In rebel-controlled Luhansk, city officials said five people died Monday when a retirement home was hit by artillery fire. The mayor’s office in Horlivka, near Donetsk, said 17 people were killed in shelling.
Lysenko said militants were using children as human shields and turning back civilians trying to flee Donetsk and Luhansk by car. Lysenko and other government officials claim the insurgents are posing as Ukrainian soldiers and targeting civilians in an attempt to discredit Ukrainian troops. His claims could not be verified, however.
Birnbaum reported from Moscow. William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.