A piece of debris at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. Photograph: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
The Netherlands and Australia are standing by to send police and troops to the site of the Malaysia Airlines crash in eastern Ukraine, in an attempt to finally secure the scene of the disaster, more than a week after the plane came down killing all 298 people on board.
Pro-Russia separatists in the area, who are accused of bringing down the plane using a surface-to-air missile, have said they would welcome international investigators but the presence of foreign forces in the volatile region presents challenges, with military confrontation between Ukraine’s forces and rebels rumbling on in the immediate vicinity.
Of the dead, 193 were Dutch citizens and 28 were Australians. Many of the bodies were removed from the site by local emergency workers and transferred by train to Kharkiv, from where they are being flown in batches to the Netherlands. But observers say there are still human remains at the site and part of the task of the 40 Dutch police who are due to arrive will be to ensure that all the bodies and body parts are found.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said on Friday that the contingent would be unarmed. “If we go with a big military presence, the situation could become more unstable than stable,” he said.
The Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, said his country was also ready to send police and had officers standing by in Europe, ready to travel to the site if agreement is achieved.
“This will be a police-led humanitarian mission,” the Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, said in Kharkiv, where she has been overseeing the arrival and onward flights to the Netherlands for the remains. “And there will be body identification and forensic experts. And of course we will ensure they are safe, that they will have protection.”
In the week since MH17 came crashing to the ground the site has remained unsecured, with open access to media and locals. So far, the only international monitors at the site have been observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), joined by a handful of international investigators. There has been anger at allegations of looting as well as suggestions that some of the rebels could be attempting to cover up potential evidence. Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the OSCE, said observers had found identity cards and credit cards at the site on Friday and added that people were seen moving parts of the fuselage.
A rebel fighter who arrived at the scene soon after the crash told the Guardian on Friday that he and his men had found locals looting items from the site and taking pieces of fuselage to sell as scrap metal.
The question of looting was again raised on Friday after a local woman apparently posted photographs on Instagram of herself wearing makeup apparently taken from the site. The photograph was geolocated to the town of Torez, near the crash site, and the caption was: “Mascara from Amsterdam, well, from the field if you know what I mean.”
The Instagram account was later deleted after the woman received hundreds of angry messages. One user who initially “liked” the Instagram photograph confirmed to the Guardian that the account was real, but claimed the mascara was not stolen from the wreckage of MH17.
The most problematic element of the Dutch and Australian missions will be security. Although both Ukrainian forces and the rebels have promised to observe a ceasefire in the immediate area around the crash site, fighting close to the regional capital, Donetsk, has intensified in recent days, with heavy shelling audible even in the centre of Donetsk in the early hours of Friday morning. The president, Petro Poroshenko, is keen to end the insurgency in the east of the country before Ukraine’s independence day on 24 August, but serious fighting will be required to dislodge the rebels from Donetsk, with inevitable civilian casualties.
Human Rights Watch said Grad rocket attacks had killed 16 people in Donetsk in recent days, in what “may constitute war crimes”. The organisation said the evidence pointed to Ukrainian forces being responsible, despite denials in Kiev.
Both Russia and Ukraine are accusing the other of shelling across the border. Ukraine says Russia has carried out nightly shelling into its territory in recent days, and also accuses the Russians of shooting down Ukrainian planes from inside Russia.
In turn, Russia claimed the Ukrainians fired mortar rounds into Russia on Friday.
A statement from Russia’s investigative committee said: “Those who shot from Ukraine carried out the shooting purposefully with an intent to kill Russian law enforcement officials.
“It was only the poor preparation of the Ukrainian military and the timely evacuation of law enforcement officers under the cover of armoured transport vehicles that did not allow the shooters to realise their intention.”
Also on Friday, the Pentagon said it believed Russia was planning to supply multiple launch rocket systems to the rebels in east Ukraine, indicating that satellite pictures showed the systems approaching the border and a transfer was expected “in the very near future … potentially today”.