“This is a humanitarian operation,” Houston, who also heads the search for Malaysian Air’s Flight 370, which disappeared in March, said in an interview on ABC television. “We’re going in to recover bodies from a number of nations.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said yesterday more than 230 officials, including police and military, will be dispatched to Ukraine to help 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. His sole concern is to secure and bring home the remains, Abbott said. “The last thing we want to do is place anyone in danger.”
Members of the Australian team have completed a two-day reconnaissance of the crash site, Houston said today, adding that Russian-backed rebels in the area were professional and cooperative. That wasn’t the experience yesterday of Dutch forensics workers, who were blocked from reaching the crash site by separatists, the Netherlands government said.
The Australians are “well-positioned to go in” now that the survey is done, and will be “primarily police and civilians, not military personnel,” Houston said. “We will have a combination of armed personnel and unarmed personnel, if that’s the way the government decides to go.”
Dmitry Gau, the spokesman for rebels, wouldn’t comment on the Australian plans to carry firearms, when contacted by Bloomberg News.
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 said last week.
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 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.
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.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko last 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.
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.’”
To contact the reporter on this story: Ben Sharples in Melbourne at firstname.lastname@example.org