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UN rights chief: Flight 17 possible war crime; Ukraine civilian toll could violate int'l law

Dutch policemen walk to their cars in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Sunday, July 27, 2014. A team of international police officers that had been due to visit the site of the Malaysian plane disaster in eastern Ukraine cancelled the trip Sunday after receiving reports of fighting in the area. Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the OSCE in Europe, said it would be too dangerous for the unarmed mission to travel to the site from its current location in the rebel-held city of Donetsk. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

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Dutch policemen walk to their cars in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Sunday, July 27, 2014. A team of international police officers that had been due to visit the site of the Malaysian plane disaster in eastern Ukraine cancelled the trip Sunday after receiving reports of fighting in the area. Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the OSCE in Europe, said it would be too dangerous for the unarmed mission to travel to the site from its current location in the rebel-held city of Donetsk. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

GENEVA - The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 may be a war crime, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Monday.

Pillay, the U.N.'s top human rights official, called for a thorough investigation into the violation of international law that occurred when the flight was shot down with a surface-to-air missile over a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists on July 17, killing all 298 people on board.

Pillay's comments coincided with a new report by her office that says at least 1,129 people had been killed and 3,442 wounded in Ukraine's fighting as of Saturday, and more than 100,000 have fled the violence since April.

"This violation of international law, given the prevailing circumstances, may amount to a war crime," Pillay said of the downed jetliner, which U.S. and Ukrainian officials say was shot down by a missile from rebel territory, most likely by mistake.

"It is imperative that a prompt, thorough, effective, independent and impartial investigation be conducted into this event," she said.

Fighting over the weekend prevented a team of Dutch and Australian police officers from visiting the crash site to start searching for evidence and the remaining bodies. The Dutch government said a team of 26 forensic experts left Donetsk for the crash site on Monday.

A full-fledged investigation still has not begun at the crash site. Some bodies are still unrecovered and the site has been forensically compromised.

The report by the U.N.'s team of 39 field monitors in Ukraine says there has been an alarming buildup of heavy weaponry in civilian areas of Donetsk and Luhansk — including artillery, tanks, rockets and missiles that are being used to inflict increasing casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.

The report says such attacks could amount to violations of international humanitarian law.

Gianni Magazzeni, head of the U.N. office's branch that oversees Ukraine, told reporters in Geneva that all governments must respect "the presumption of innocence of civilians."

"There is an increase in the use of heavy weaponry in areas that are basically surrounded by public buildings," he said. "All international law needs to be applied and fully respected."

Wouter Oude Alink, an expert at Leiden University's International Institute of Air and Space Law in the Netherlands, said shooting down the airliner and killing all 298 people onboard violates the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, including an important addition to it ratified by Russia and Ukraine, and the 1945 U.N. Charter.

The addition to the Chicago Convention reflected the 1983 downing of a Korean jetliner by the Soviets. It said nations must not use weapons against civil aircraft in flight or endanger the passengers and aircraft if intercepted. The U.N. Charter's Article 51 says the use of force by nations is only allowed for self-defence.

Though the treaties only mention nations, "this does not imply that these international laws do not apply" to armed groups like the pro-Russian rebels, Alink said.

"Being rebels means exactly that the Ukrainian separatists are not considered a legal entity or representing a recognized state; from an international point of view this is still Ukrainian territory," he said in an email to The Associated Press. "As Ukraine (and Russia) is obliged to refrain from violence against civil aircraft, so are its citizens."

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Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.

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