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Kiev, Ukraine - A small advance team of forensic experts on Thursday finally reached the site where a Malaysia Airlines flight went down in eastern Ukraine two weeks ago, after four days of false starts cut short by heavy fighting in the area.
The team also recovered DNA samples from 25 victims and personal items belonging to 27 people, all of which had been kept in a morgue in the rebel-held city of Donetsk before being handed over to the Dutch-led team.
It took seven hours for the two Australian and two Dutch experts, accompanied by monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to drive 123 miles to what they call the chicken farm area, where the plane's wings and landing gear fell. They were delayed at Ukrainian checkpoints waiting for a cease-fire to take effect and at rebel checkpoints negotiating their advance, said Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, the head of the recovery mission.
In the end, they spent barely an hour at the site. But they hope to return today with a larger squad to look for body parts and possessions in more locations around the widely scattered debris field. Eventually, they may use sniffer dogs.
The sunflower-drenched fields, forests and back yards where the wreckage fell may still hold the remains of as many as 80 people among the 298 aboard Flight 17 when it was shot down July 17 by a missile apparently fired from separatist-held territory, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said. Aalbersberg said the team saw no remains Thursday and could not confirm that figure. Bodies and body parts that filled 227 caskets left the area last week in refrigerated cars loaded by separatists.
Although the advance squad was small, its visit marked a breakthrough. For four straight days, they had been turned back by warnings of heavy fighting, as presidents, prime ministers and international organizations had pleaded for Ukrainian and separatist forces to observe a cease-fire around the crash site.
They succeeded on a day when the Ukrainian government called a one-day cease-fire in its military offensive against the rebels, honoring a "day of silence" called by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said government forces fired only in self-defense. Reporters in the area said clashes were continuing in the vicinity of the crash site.
Meanwhile, in Kiev, the government pulled out of a crisis when it voted not to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Last week, he said he was stepping down in what is viewed as an ultimatum designed to force parliament to vote on an economic package.
Parliament's rejection of his resignation is considered a victory for the reforms Yatsenyuk championed. Although officially in recess, the legislature returned for a one-day session Thursday and adopted changes that were in line with what the International Monetary Fund was seeking. Members slashed the number of government agencies from 80 to 20 and cut senior officials' salaries. They also imposed a 1.5 percent "war tax" on incomes through the end of the year for national defense spending and the war, which paved the way for Yatsenyuk to order new arms purchases, training for troops, gas for military vehicles and wages for soldiers. Ukraine's military was on the verge of going broke.
"Today, there are two news stories in the world economy," Yatsenyuk said. "First news is that Argentina announced a default. Second news: Ukraine has not announced a default and will never announce it."