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Deal to secure Ukraine plane crash zone fails

Cows graze near the wreckage at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on July 26, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

KIEV, Ukraine — An apparent agreement between the Malaysian government and pro-Russia separatists to secure the crash zone of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 has come to naught as fighting continued in the area of eastern Ukraine where the jet went down.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Sunday that he had reached an agreement with Oleksandr Boroday, one of the self-proclaimed leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, to allow investigators to reach and explore the site unharmed.

But just a few hours later, about 30 unarmed Dutch investigators, accompanied by international monitors, said they were turning back from a mission to examine the crash because the area remained too dangerous.

"We can’t control the risks," a spokesman for the monitoring group, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said after the investigation team reached the city of Donetsk, near the crash site.

Ukrainian officials said they continued to make gains in fighting in the area against the separatists. A spokesman for Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council said that with advances north of Donetsk and in other areas, the army has now seized two-thirds of the territory controlled by separatists at the start of the conflict.

The fighting also scuttled, at least temporarily, a plan by Australia to send a team of unarmed officers to investigate the crash zone.

Razak’s announcement had offered reason for optimism because of Malaysia’s previous success in extracting concessions from the separatists, who control the area. Negotiations in recent days produced a pledge from Boroday to turn over the plane’s flight recorders, which were then given to Malaysian representatives at a pageant-filled ceremony.

Part of the issue with the crash-site negotiations, analysts say, is that there are several factions among the separatists, and even a good-faith effort by one group to stop fighting might not be honored by another.

There is also a strategic disincentive for separatists to halt fighting in the crash area, territory considered crucial because it links the group’s western front with potential supply points in areas near the Russian border in the east.

Further muddying the waters is that the line between areas considered inside and outside the crash zone is extremely thin; the central battleground of Donetsk, for example, is just a few miles from the western edge of the site, and shelling around the city could compromise the safety of investigators even if it's taking place outside it.

The site remains inaccessible to investigators 10 days after Flight 17 was shot down by a missile believed fired from separatist-controlled territory.

The Ukrainian government said it does not want a more wholesale military operation at the crash site because although it would secure the area, would it compromise much of the evidence any investigation would need to preserve.

"If you do that, all the traces will be disrupted," Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said on CNN on Sunday when asked about a military intervention specifically aimed at securing the site.