ROZSYPNE, Ukraine (AP) — As mortar fire landed nearby, an international team of investigators finally reached the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 wreckage site Thursday and got their first look at a scene experts fear has been badly compromised in the two weeks since the plane was blown out of the sky.
For the families of the 298 victims, it was an important start in locating and recovering bodies still out in the open and building a case against those who perpetrated the tragedy.
Harun Calehr, the uncle of two young victims of the disaster, said by telephone from his home in the U.S. that he was happy investigators had reached the site. But Calehr said he remains concerned that dozens of bodies haven't been retrieved.
"It's been two weeks. I just hope they can get there now and do their job," Calehr said from Houston. "The only thing keeping me sane is being religious, hoping for something positive."
As the investigators — two each from the Netherlands and Australia — made an initial survey of the area shortly after lunchtime, fighting raged between government forces and pro-Russian separatist rebels, and mortar shells rained down on fields in a nearby village.
Despite the dangers, the team called the one-hour inspection a success.
"Today was more about an assessment of the site than it was of a search," said Australian Federal Police commander Brian McDonald.
Up to 80 bodies are still at the site, said Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, speaking to the Australian Broadcasting Corp. from Ukraine.
Ukraine and the U.S. contend the plane was shot down by the rebels July 17 with a Russian-supplied missile. The rebels deny it.
For days, clashes along routes to the wreckage site had kept investigators from reaching the area to find and retrieve bodies that have been decaying in the 90-degree (32 C) midsummer heat. Independent observers warned that evidence was being tampered with.
But after negotiations, the investigators were allowed through the final rebel checkpoint at the village of Rozsypne on Thursday afternoon by a rifle-toting militiaman who then fired a warning shot to prevent reporters from accompanying the convoy.
The militiaman, who gave his name only as Sergei, said there was still fighting in Rozsypne as the Ukrainian army continues an offensive to take back territory from the rebels.
Ukrainian national security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said a "day of quiet" was declared Thursday in response to a call for a cease-fire from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
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