Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s plan to deploy armed police to the site of the Malaysian Airlines crash will focus on reclaiming bodies, amid concern their presence may increase tension in Ukrainian territory held by Russian-backed rebels.
Abbott said yesterday that his sole concern is to secure remains and bring them home. He said 100 Australian Federal Police, some of them armed, and members of Australia’s military were to be dispatched to recover bodies and evidence from Flight MH17, which crashed on July 17 near Donetsk in the country’s east, killing all 298 passengers and crew.
Underscoring what the officers could encounter, a team of Dutch forensics workers was blocked by separatists yesterday from reaching the crash site, the government said in a statement on its website. The Netherlands, which had 194 citizens on the plane, was sending 40 unarmed military police to the site to help complete the forensic work and gather evidence, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte Rutte said last week.
“The last thing we want to do is place anyone in danger,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra yesterday. “That is our mission: to secure the remains, to assist the investigation and to obtain justice for the victims and their loved ones.”
A surface-to-air missile supplied by Russia and fired from territory held by the rebels shot down the Malaysian jetliner, the U.S. has said, stopping short of alleging direct Russian involvement. U.S. intelligence officials have said the separatists probably mistook the passenger jet, which was flying within a common commercial routing 1,000 feet above a government-imposed no-fly zone, for a Ukrainian government troop-transport plane.
Ukrainians’ desire for closer links with Europe, the U.S. and their allies has long been a source of tension with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who intervened in Ukraine after pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych stepped down in February, fueling the five-month insurgency. Russia accused the U.S. of fomenting the uprising that led to Yanukovych’s ouster.
Spokesmen at the Russian Defense and Foreign ministries weren’t available when contacted by Bloomberg.
Abbott stressed that many of the Australian officers won’t be armed and said the operation, which is seen as part of an international mission that doesn’t include the U.S., is expected to last no longer than a few weeks. Australia needs an agreement to be ratified by the Ukrainian parliament to secure a team that may be armed, he said yesterday.
“They must be nuts,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said in a phone interview, referring to Australia’s deployment of armed officers. “It’s a very dangerous proposal and will be seen as a provocation by the separatists and the Russians.”
The Netherlands will decide this weekend on whether to send an unarmed police mission to help secure the crash site, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told parliament July 25.
“Of course, I myself have moments when I think: send in the marines,” Rutte said. “But we have to weigh the geopolitical ramifications that would have. This is not an area where this would remain without consequences. So we have to build coalitions with all players involved very carefully.”
The U.K. won’t send police or technicians to Ukraine, though it is ready to offer logistical support and is keeping in close contact with the Australians and Dutch over how it can assist, the Foreign Office said. The U.K. has sent one forensics specialist to Kiev and nine British scientists are working in the Netherlands to help identify bodies and secure evidence
“We believe a U.K. armed presence in eastern Ukraine would not be appropriate,” the Foreign Office said in an e-mailed statement.
The Netherlands, Australia and Ukraine are considering proposing a United Nations resolution for an armed mission to secure the crash site, Dutch news agency ANP reported, citing diplomatic officials familiar with the matter that it didn’t identify. Australia, a Security Council member, will submit the resolution if officials at the site can’t perform duties in the next few days, it reported.
“I don’t think that you should assume that Minister Bishop will go from the Netherlands to New York,” Abbott said yesterday, referring to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. “You may well find that she goes back to Kiev in the next day or so.”
Australia earlier dispatched 90 police to help with the crash probe. The reinforcements will first fly to the Netherlands. There were 27 Australians on MH17.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko this week signed an accord under which the Netherlands will lead the international probe into the crash. The Foreign Ministry in Kiev said a separate agreement was signed July 25 for an “Australian mission of civil police” to help protect the mission. There was no mention from either Poroshenko or the Foreign Ministry on whether the Australians would be armed.
Dmitry Gau, the spokesman for rebels, wouldn’t comment on the Australian plans to carry firearms, when contacted by Bloomberg News.
Karl-Heinz Kamp, academic director at the German government’s Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin, said the Australian military is experienced and wouldn’t take risks, especially in a situation “where some of the rebels are drunk.”
“The only way the Australians are going to send armed officers into rebel territory is if there’s some kind of back-room deal,” Kamp said by phone. “It’s totally far-fetched but if it’s true, maybe the Russians are under such pressure to do something they told the rebels ‘you have to accept this.’”
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