Ukraine will halt to offensive over MH17 probe

Donetsk - Kiev on Thursday announced a day-long halt to its deadly offensive to oust pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine after fighting had stalled efforts by international investigators to kickstart a probe into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

International fallout from the crisis tearing apart the ex-Soviet nation rumbled on as the Group of Seven major developed economies warned Moscow that it could face even tougher sanctions over its backing for the insurgents, despite the EU and US already hitting Russia with the most punitive measures since the Cold War.

Dutch and Australian police experts were trying for the fifth day running to access the crash site of the downed Malaysian airliner after clashes between government and insurgent forces thwarted previous attempts to reach the scene.

Ukraine's military announced the surprise suspension of its entire operation across the east after a plea from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to halt fighting in the area of the crash, where remains from some of the 298 victims lie festering in the sun some two weeks after the jet was shot down over rebel territory.

"We have taken a decision not to conduct military operations on this so-called 'day of quiet'", military spokesperson Oleksiy Dmytrashkivsky told AFP.

Kiev, which has continually blamed rebels controlling the site for blocking the probe warned however that insurgents had continued shelling its troops positions around the region.

Negotiators from Kiev and Moscow were set to fly into the Belarussian capital Minsk for possible negotiations with rebels over access to the site but there appeared little hope for a major breakthrough.

Separatist leaders have said that they would be willing to meet the so-called trilateral Contact Group, which includes international monitors, as well as Russian and Ukrainian representatives but demanded that Kiev withdraw its troops from their territory as a first condition.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Kiev were set Thursday at a closed-door session discussing the downing of MH17 to vote on ratifying agreements with The Hague and Canberra that could see the two nations send some 1 000 armed personnel to secure the vast crash site where many of their nationals died.

The Netherlands has already ruled out the possibility of sending in troops as "unrealistic" over fears they could get entangled in Ukraine's murky conflict that has claimed over 1 100 lives in more than three months of bitter fighting.

Despite the brief pause the death toll continued to climb, with local authorities saying that clashes in the rebel stronghold of Lugansk left three civilians dead, including a five-year-old child, over the past 24 hours.

Diplomatic slanging match

The rising toll comes against the background of fresh threats from the West that they could tighten the screws still further on Russia after a defiant Moscow warned fresh sanctions targeting its vital energy, arms and finance sector would backfire on the US and lead to energy price hikes in Europe.

In a statement released by the White House the G7 powers urged the Kremlin to "choose the path of de-escalation" in Ukraine, where it is accused of arming the insurgents suspected of shooting down flight MH17.

If Russia "does not do so, however, we remain ready to further intensify the costs of its adverse actions", the G7 statement said.

But Russia remained bullish in the face of the latest punishment with Moscow's foreign ministry blasting the United States for hitting the Kremlin over its "independent policies that Washington finds inconvenient".

Some EU diplomats and Russia experts expressed concern that tighter sanctions may in fact embolden Putin, convincing him that he no longer has anything to lose by further escalating the Ukraine conflict.

Fuelling concern, Nato's top commander, General Philip Breedlove, said on Wednesday that Russia had boosted the number of troops along the border with Ukraine to "well over 12 000" and the number was on the rise.

In addition, Russian deployments in the crisis area include "every kind of weapon, supplies, man portable weapons, field weapons, armoured vehicles, all of the weapons", he said.

Meanwhile, Ukraine's squabbling legislators also looked set to try to row back from the brink of political crisis with a display of faith in the government of premier Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who quit dramatically last week after his ruling coalition collapsed, raising the possibility of early parliamentary polls.