By Dario Thuburn with Oleksandr Savochenko and Hui Min Neo in Kiev
Grabove, Ukraine - Forensic experts have identified the first of 298 people killed in the MH17 disaster, the Dutch government said, as grieving relatives defied safety concerns to pay an emotional visit to the crash site in eastern Ukraine.
A truce has been called in the immediate area around the site by both the Kiev forces and pro-Russian separatists, but combat was raging just 60km away, with loud explosions heard at regular intervals in western and northern suburbs of rebel stronghold Donetsk.
Ignoring safety warnings, an Australian couple travelled to the scene of the crash without any escort on Saturday, saying they were fulfilling a promise to their only child that they would be there.
“She was full of life,” said Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski of their 25-year-old daughter Fatima, an aerospace engineering student who died when the Amsterdam-to-Kuala Lumpur plane was shot down July 17, killing all 298 people on board.
She and her husband Jerzy Dyczynski, who wore a T-shirt with the words “Fatima: We Love You”, were overcome with emotion as they walked among the wreckage and scorched earth, and laid a large bouquet of flowers on part of the debris.
The Dutch government, which is in charge of identifying the remains found at the site, said that forensic experts had confirmed the identity of the first victim on Saturday, one of 193 Dutch citizens who had been on board.
An investigation into the downing of flight MH17 has been hampered by the violence plaguing east Ukraine, which claimed at least nine lives in the last 24 hours in insurgent holdout Lugansk.
Dutch experts sought to travel to the site on Saturday, but turned back because of safety concerns.
The rebels who are accused of shooting down the plane with a missile from Russia have signalled they are only open to allowing a small group of Australian and Dutch officers in.
But Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose country lost 28 citizens in the crash, stressed that it was a “humanitarian mission”.
“It's the presence of unrecovered remains that makes it more important than ever that an international team be dispatched,” he said.
“Others can get involved if they wish in the politics of eastern Europe. Our sole concern is to claim our dead and to bring them home.”
Abbott later on Saturday discussed plans with Russian President Vladimir Putin for “an independent and objective international inquiry”, the Kremlin said in a statement.
After a few days when little activity was seen, recovery efforts appeared to restart again on Saturday, AFP reporters at the scene said.
The mission may not be imminent in any case as Ukraine's parliament, which needs to formally approve any international deployment, is only due to broach the issue at a session on Thursday.
The Netherlands is planning to send 60 officers, and said troops had been consigned to barracks and had leave cancelled ahead of the planned mission.
Australia is sending 190 police along with a small number of its defence forces to the Netherlands in view of the mission.
In Brussels, the European Union punished Russia - which it accuses of abetting the insurgency by arming the rebels - with new sanctions on its intelligence chiefs.
Moscow angrily blasted the move as “irresponsible”, and warned it put at risk cooperation on security issues.
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg joined calls on Sunday for Russia to be stripped of the World Cup in 2018 following the MH17 disaster.
The Liberal Democrat leader said sporting events should be part of a new package of EU sanctions against Moscow.
“You can't have this - the beautiful game - marred by the ugly aggression of Russia on the Russian Ukrainian border,” Clegg told the Sunday Times newspaper.
Clegg's call echoes that of several German politicians earlier this month, although the idea was quickly rejected by football officials.
Ukraine's army, meanwhile, pressed its offensive to wrest back control of the vital industrial east, with volleys of what appeared to be Grad rocket fire heard all through Saturday.
“We can't sleep at night! There's no electricity, no water, no gas. The houses are burning,” said Viktoriya Konovalova, 32, who sat selling apricots by the side of the road in the Oktyabrsky suburb of industrial city Donetsk as the booming echoed behind her.
While the fighting raged, politicians in Kiev were battling to limit the fallout from Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's abrupt resignation on Thursday.
Lawmakers are to meet next week to discuss the prime minister's future. President Petro Poroshenko has insisted on Yatsenyuk's cooperation until new elections are held.
The premier quit in fury after several parties walked out of his ruling coalition in what appeared to be the beginning of a rancorous campaign ahead of parliamentary elections later this year.
The Fatherland faction of ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko condemned the coalition's collapse, saying it “opens up a second front” as the country battles to quell the eastern insurgency.
In a sign the upheaval in the cash-strapped country is ringing alarm bells, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde rang Poroshenko to remind him of reforms Kiev pledged to undertake in exchange for its $17-billion two-year financial lifeline.
The IMF previously forecast that Ukraine's economy would contract by 6.5 percent this year.
The other chief protagonist in the Ukraine conflict - Russia - is also widely expected to sink into recession. - Sapa-AFP