Ukrainian troops recaptured three towns from pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine on Monday as they advanced toward the Malaysia Airlines crash site, where international investigators have been thwarted from examining the scene of the July 17 disaster, Ukrainian officials said.
The United Nations high commissioner for human rights, meanwhile, said at a news conference in Geneva that the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the deaths of all 298 people on board were being investigated for possible war crimes charges.
Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, told journalists in Kiev that government troops had taken back control of Shakhtarsk, about 20 miles from the center of the crash site. They also chased the separatists from Torez and Lutuhyne, two other towns on roads leading to the wreckage, Lysenko said.
A team of more than 60 Dutch and Australian investigators attempted to reach the site for a second day Monday but stopped short because of fighting nearby, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said.
The international police team is charged with securing the debris field near the village of Hrabove but has been prevented from reaching the area by fighting and militants' roadblocks.
The Boeing 777, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was shot down by a surface-to-air missile launched by a sophisticated Buk antiaircraft system allegedly provided to the separatists by Russia, U.S. intelligence sources have said.
American and European Union officials have accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of arming the separatists and instigating them with his late-February seizure of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and annexation of the militarily strategic region to Russia.
Putin denies any role in the separatists' actions, although many of those killed in battles with Ukrainian forces have been identified as Russian citizens, and Russian special forces veterans openly command the militants in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Russia-allied militants found the downed plane's "black boxes" and held them for several days before turning them over to investigators led by the Netherlands, which lost 193 citizens in the crash.
Lysenko said the Ukrainian government had been informed that an initial review of the black box data suggested the crash was caused by shrapnel puncturing the fuselage, causing massive decompression and breakup of the plane, which had been flying at 33,000 feet.
In Geneva, a U.N. report released Monday said the eastern Ukraine conflict spurred by pro-Russia militants' land grabs four months ago had claimed the lives of 1,129 people.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the downing of the plane was being investigated as a possible war crime, and she called for immediate and unhindered access for investigators to the crash site.
"This violation of international law, given the prevailing circumstances, may amount to a war crime. It is imperative that a prompt, thorough, effective, independent and impartial investigation be conducted into this event," Pillay said.
She said that all those responsible for the killings, detentions and rights abuses would be identified and brought to justice. Pillay also urged all sides "to bring to an end the rule of the gun and restore respect for the rule of law and human rights."
In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday repeated the Kremlin's allegation that Ukrainian forces were the aggressors in the conflict.
"The Ukrainian authorities think they can use any means in order to defend their territorial integrity and sovereignty," Lavrov said.
Ukrainian troops over the last two weeks have regained control of more than half the territory seized by the militants in late March and April, forcing the Russia-allied gunmen to retreat to a few urban areas they still hold.
Lavrov also blamed Ukrainian military action for investigators' inability to reach the crash site, saying that a buffer zone announced by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had not been honored.
Zeitchik reported from Kiev and Williams from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Isabel Gorst in Moscow contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun