SHAKHTARSK, Ukraine (AP) — Panicky residents in an eastern Ukrainian town fled their homes Monday carrying a few possessions in plastic bags and small suitcases as shells exploded in the distance, fighting that also prevented an international police team from reaching the area where the Malaysia Airlines plane was downed.
"Mom, hang in there," exclaimed a weeping woman who was fleeing Shakhtarsk with her mother. Associated Press reporters saw a high-rise apartment block in the town being hit by at least two rounds of artillery.
The fighting there and elsewhere in the area kept Dutch and Australian police for the second day from reaching the site where the plane crashed after being shot from the sky. They had planned to begin searching for remaining bodies and gathering forensic evidence and the delay strained tempers among international observers.
"There is a job to be done," said Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "We are sick and tired of being interrupted by gunfights, despite the fact that we have agreed that there should be a ceasefire."
The plane was downed on July 17 while flying over a part of eastern Ukraine where government forces and pro-Russia separatist rebels have been fighting for months. Ukrainian and Western officials say the plane was shot down by a rebel missile, most likely by mistake, and that Russia supplied the weapon or trained rebels to use it. Both the rebels and Moscow deny that.
A Ukrainian official said Monday that data from the recovered flight recorders show that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed due to a massive, explosive loss of pressure after being punctured multiple times by shrapnel. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for Ukraine's national security council, said the plane suffered "massive explosive decompression" after it was hit by fragments he said came from a missile.
There were signs that government forces were gaining some ground in their fight with the rebels.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry said Ukrainian troops entered Shakhtarsk, although checkpoints blocking the western entrance into town remain under rebel control. It also said fighting was taking place in Snizhne, which lies directly south of the crash site, and in other towns in the east.
Meanwhile rebels in Donetsk said on Twitter that fighting took place in the village of Rozsypne, where some of the wreckage still lays strewn and uncollected.
A rebel military leader, Igor Ivanov, told Russian state news agency RIA-Novosti that the village had fallen into government hands, but that information could not immediately be confirmed.
And in a possible indication of sagging morale within the rebels' ranks, the deputy leader of the rebels in Donetsk announced Monday that his immediate superior, Alexander Borodai, had left for Russia. Viktor Antyufeyev, who is a Russian national like Borodai, said he will take over as the separatist government's acting prime minister.
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