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May 26, 2017

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Int'l teams prepare to deploy to MH17 site amid heavy fighting

DONETSK, Ukraine--Fighting between Ukrainian troops and rebels raged Thursday near the crash site of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, as countries that lost 298 citizens in the disaster moved to deploy their police to secure the impact zone.

The Dutch team leading the crash probe was stuck in Kiev, unable to join a handful of international investigators at the rebel-controlled site.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's army reported four soldiers killed over the last 24 hours in its offensive to retake the eastern industrial heartland from the pro-Russian insurgents.

Two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down Wednesday 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the crash site, just as the first bodies recovered from the fated flight were flown out to the Netherlands, which counts 193 citizens lost in the disaster.

While the Dutch offered a solemn ceremony for the victims' remains, soldiers hoisting 40 wooden coffins into as many waiting hearses, British experts began analyzing the black boxes from the MH17 flight in the hopes of discovering details about the tragedy.

In Brussels EU diplomats were also preparing to stiffen sanctions on Russia, which they allege is arming the Ukrainian separatists accused of bringing down the plane.

And in eastern Kiev, investigators said human remains were still strewn amidst the debris of the wreck, where recovery work has been at a standstill since Tuesday.

Dutch authorities said they can only be sure that 200 corpses have been recovered out of the 298 people killed on board.

Announcing that Australia was ready to deploy police to secure the debris zone, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that there was still a need for a rigorous search of the site.

"On the site it is still clear that nothing is happening without the approval of the armed rebels who brought the plane down in the first place," he said.

Abbott, whose country lost 28 citizens, said 50 Australian officers were on standby in London.

Rebels and government forces have declared a cease-fire in the immediate vicinity of the site, but just beyond, fierce fighting was ongoing.

The Ukrainian military said rockets were on Thursday being fired "from the Russian side," hitting locations close to Lugansk airport and in several areas in the Donetsk region.

Mortar shells also rained down on Avdiyika in Donetsk region, the army said, without giving details of casualties.

An AFP crew heading to one of these combat hotspots Wednesday was turned back by rebels, who fired shots at their car.

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