Monday, 28 July 2014

Fighting blocks MH17 site mission

Australian Federal Police officers were forced last night by fierce fighting to delay their search of the MH17 crash site for the still-missing remains of some of those who died aboard the Malaysia Airlines jet.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said last night the operation was too risky to go ahead, with the Agence France Presse news agency reporting that the fighting was only 1km away from the crash site in eastern Ukraine.

“There is fighting going on. We can’t take the risk,” said ­Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the OSCE special mission in Ukraine.

Earlier complex negotiations had cleared a temporary path through the war zone.

Tony Abbott had announced earlier that the unarmed police would be deployed as part of a Dutch-led international human­itarian mission.

The first team of 49 police that was to be sent to the site included 11 Australians, the Prime Minister said.

“I expect there will be considerably more on-site in coming days,’’ he said. “This is a risky mission, no doubt about that.

“But all the professional advice I have is that the safest way to conduct it is unarmed, as part of a police-led humanitarian mission. Our objective is to get in, to get cracking and to get out.”

The Australian government has also sent a group of unarmed defence force personnel to ­Europe to help with logistics and medical care.

Bill Shorten has assured the Prime Minister of Labor’s full support for the Ukraine mission.

Mr Abbott said the agreement to allow the police to carry out the search ordered by the UN had been carefully negotiated ­directly with the Ukrainian government and with the Russia-backed rebels who controlled the site, through the OSCE.

“That is absolutely critical,’’ Mr Abbott said. “Our objective is principally to recover the bodies. Our intention, under the auspic­es of local people, is to take over the site to ensure that recovery of remains can go ahead as swiftly and as ­effectively as possible.”

He said the police would stay as long as necessary to do a professional job, and that should take no longer than two to three weeks. “This is contested ground and we don’t want to be there any longer than is absolutely necessary,” he said. “Frankly, we need to be prepared to take some risks in order to do the right thing by our dead and by their grieving families.”

It is understood that debris from MH17 — believed to have been brought down on July 17 by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile with the loss of 298 lives — is scattered in five major sites covering more than 35sq km. It is about 11km long and fans out to 5km across at its widest point.

AFP Commissioner Tony Negus said there were now 190 AFP members in Europe, with all but 20 in Ukraine. Others were in The Netherlands, helping identify the bodies already flown there. The officers would be sent to the site as required, Mr Negus said.

Mr Abbott said some unarmed Defence personnel were in Europe helping with logistics. It is also believed that some Australian Defence Force medical staff are available as a standard precaution.

In Kiev, it appeared that one issue preventing the immediate full deployment of investigators has been the difficulty of finding the right people to sign off on the foreign presence. The Ukrainian government is in a dysfunctional caretaker state after its parliament was dissolved last week.

It appeared to have sent hundreds of military vehicles south to the outskirts of the eastern city of Donetsk, close to the crash site that is in the hands of the rebels, to prepare for a full-blown assault to blast the Russian-backed separatists out of the area.

Mr Abbott said the goal was to bring back the bodies of those who died, to help investigate what happened and to obtain justice as far as was humanly possible.

He said he had been advised by former ADF chief Angus Houston, who is in Ukraine, that “this is eminently doable’’.

And the Office of National Assessments security agency had told him that, while there were risks, they could be managed.

“This is a police mission. It is not a military mission,” the Prime Minister said.

Speaking to The Australian, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that the security of Australian police in Ukraine was her only priority.

She said the mission to recover the remaining bodies from the Boeing aircraft downed on July 17 had no immediate time limit, although Prime Minister Tony Abbott wanted as quick a resolution as possible.

Ms Bishop said: “We have to remember our objective and our objective is to ensure that we have thoroughly inspected the site for any remains. And experts can tell us whether there is a point beyond which there is no point, but they haven’t told us that, so we will continue to seek to undertake this mission for as long as we have to.”

Ms Bishop has flown to Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, with the Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans to ratify a formal agreement with the Ukrainian government to allow a small contingent of Australians to bear arms to provide protection for the much larger team of international forensic experts.

The Netherlands, Australia and a small team from Malaysia are charged with sweeping the extensive crash site to collect body remains and personal possessions to return to bereaved families.

Monday 28 July 2014


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