A Malaysian passenger jet which blew up over rebel-held east Ukraine with the loss of all 298 people on board was hit by numerous "high-energy objects", according to a report Tuesday which appears to back up claims it was hit by a missile.
While the preliminary report from Dutch investigators does not point the finger of blame over the July air disaster, it could heighten Western pressure against Moscow over its role in the bloody Ukraine conflict.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 "broke up in the air probably as the result of structural damage caused by a large number of high-energy objects that penetrated the aircraft from outside," said the preliminary report by the Dutch Safety Board.
International experts have not been able to the reach the rebel-held crash site in the Donetsk region because of fighting, and have relied on information from the black boxes, Ukrainian officials, as well as pictures and video taken at the scene.
But the findings appear to back up claims that the Boeing 777, which plunged out of the sky on July 17 as it was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was hit by shrapnel from a missile.
"The initial results of the investigation point towards an external cause of the MH17 crash," said Tjibbe Joustra, chairman of the OVV safety board.
"More research will be necessary to determine the cause with greater precision," he said, adding that a final report was expected within a year of the crash.
Kiev and the West have accused pro-Russian separatists of shooting down the plane with a surface-to-air BUK missile supplied by Moscow.
But Russia, which denies Western claims it is funnelling in troops and weapons to bolster the five-month pro-Kremlin insurgency, blamed government forces.
The downing of MH17 was the second tragedy for Malaysia Airlines after the mysterious disappearance of flight MH370 in March, and threw the global spotlight back on the bloody uprising in eastern Ukraine.
"There are no indications that the MH17 crash was caused by a technical fault or by actions of the crew," the OVV said.
- Search still suspended -
The report was issued just a day after the EU adopting new sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine conflict that has killed over 3,000 people including the MH17 victims.
The majority of people on board the plane were Dutch.
Shortly after the tragedy forensic experts travelled to the site near the town of Grabove to collect body parts, but the search remains suspended.
Air crash investigators hope they may be able to return to the site if a ceasefire agreed on Friday between the Ukraine government and the separatist rebels holds.
Kiev has accused the insurgents of repeated violations of the truce, and on Tuesday the government said four soldiers had been killed and 29 wounded since Friday.
It reported that the government-controlled airport outside the insurgent stronghold of Donetsk was hit by rocket and mortar fire overnight.
A woman was also killed Saturday when rebels launched attacks on the southeastern city of Mariupol, a key battleground since the insurgents launched a lightning counter-offensive last month apparently backed by Russian elite troops and heavy weapons.
- 'Ready to review sanctions' -
The European Union agreed new sanctions against Moscow on Monday -- adding to a series of punitive measures adopted after the downing of MH17 -- but said they could be suspended if the truce does not collapse.
"Depending on the situation on the ground, the EU stands ready to review the agreed sanctions in whole or in part," European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said.
Russia has warned it would react to any new sanctions with an "asymmetrical" measure that could see EU airlines banned from flying over its airspace.
Diplomats said the new EU restrictions bar Russia's largest state-owned oil and defence firms from using European markets to raise capital and slap more asset freezes and travel bans on officials.
However, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko vowed in a phone call Monday to work to uphold the so-called "protocol" signed in Minsk, the first ceasefire backed by both Kiev and Moscow since the insurgency erupted in April.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced hope Tuesday that talks on the status of rebel held areas in industrial eastern Ukraine would start shortly.
But he added: "We are not interested in anyone or anything trying to scuttle the implementation of the Minsk agreements."
Poroshenko said there had been 10-12 truce violations a day and called on the OSCE, the pan-European security body that brokered the deal, to send observers to the "dangerous" spots where violence had flared.
Officials also announced Monday that around 650 Ukrainians held by rebels had been released, one of the conditions of the 12-point Minsk accord.