Fighting rages by Russia-Ukraine border as two jets downed

Dario Thuburn
Pro-Russian separatists stand guard at their check-point near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on July 23, 2014
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Pro-Russian separatists stand guard at their check-point near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on July 23, 2014 (AFP Photo/Alexander Khudoteply)

NEAR DMYTRIVKA (Ukraine) (AFP) - Rolling hills, sleepy villages and the crackle of gunfire: the area where two Ukrainian fighter jets were downed on Wednesday is a surreal warzone near the flight MH17 crash site.

While OSCE monitors examined the abandoned debris from the Malaysia Airlines plane, the fighting raged some 45 kilometres (25 miles) to the south near Savur Mogila -- an ancient holy site and World War II monument.

As a team of AFP reporters drove to the scene, a shot struck the road out of nowhere in front of the car and a puff of smoke went up from the asphalt.

The car was quickly reversed and another shot from a nearby hillside struck the road just to the side of the vehicle, forcing it to come to a standstill.

A group of rebels wearing military uniforms and insignia from the Vostok Battalion -- one of the main rebel formations -- came down the hill.

"You're in the middle of a warzone!" shouted one rebel, who called on his walkie-talkie to a checkpoint ahead to verify press accreditations.

The road further along was pockmarked by bombardment and the fin of a rocket could be seen stuck in the asphalt.

A burned-out minibus lay by the side of the road and the sound of gunfire and shelling became more intense.

On-edge rebels pointed their guns at the car but allowed it through to their base.

"We downed two planes. They were bombing us every day. We really showed them!" said one gunman in a group of around 20 rebels.

The rebels said that the downed planes were around eight kilometres further along the road near the village of Dmytrivka, just a few kilometres from the Russian border, but access was blocked because of the ongoing fighting.

- 'On the scrap heap' -

The contrast was marked with the immediate area around the Malaysia Airlines flight wreckage, where both separatist rebels and the Ukrainian military have declared a ceasefire to allow inspections.

Accompanied by Malaysian inspectors and a security detail of around a dozen armed men wearing uniforms from the now-disbanded Ukrainian Berkut special forces, four cars with OSCE monitors were seen in a wheat field at the site.

There was no security perimeter, no inspections and no recovery efforts going on elsewhere at the crash site, even though officials said dozens of the 298 people who were on board are still unaccounted for.

Parts of the heavy debris had also been moved.

In the village of Petropavlovka, a fragment of the plane with the Malaysian flag colours was seen propped up against an electricity pylon.

The sheet of fuselage had a lot of jagged holes -- similar to damage from shrapnel.

Lyudmila Parkhomenko, a 30-year-old housewife, said the fragment fell in her garden, along with shoes and oxygen masks from the plane.

"Everyone in the village has collected things from their gardens themselves and put it on the scrap heap," said the woman, standing by her front gate.

"That day we heard an explosion, then another, then another. We hid in the cellar and when we came out the debris was falling from the sky," she said.

In Petropavlovka and surrounding villages, small shrines had been put up by piles of debris from the plane with candles, flowers and soft toys.

Michael Bociurkiw, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's mission in Ukraine, said monitors on Wednesday had also found parts of the fuselage with "significant puncture marks".

But he declined to say what might have caused it and said a full investigation "should be done by those far better qualified than us".

Asked about the security situation after the downing of the two Sukhoi-25 jets, he said there had been a "mini-alert" during the monitoring tour.

"Everyone has to be on standby if things do escalate. We hope they don't of course because there is still a lot to be done."