MH17: Human remains still at crash site
SYDNEY // More than a week after Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 came down in rebel-held eastern Ukraine human remains are still at the crash site, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott said on Saturday.
The majority of the 298 people killed when the plane was apparently shot down by a missile were Dutch, but there were also 28 Australian nationals and nine permanent residents on-board.
Mr Abbott is sending 190 Australian Federal Police to the Netherlands, along with a small number of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel, to participate in a planned Dutch-led operation to secure the crash site.
“Yesterday Australian officials again had access to the sites,” Mr Abbott said.
“Plainly there are unrecovered body remains in the area. And it’s the presence of unrecovered remains that makes it more important than ever that an international team be dispatched to the site.”
Questioned on concerns about sending troops into the volatile situation in Ukraine, Mr Abbott stressed that Australia’s involvement in the planned mission was only to secure the remains and help the investigation.
“It is, I stress, a humanitarian mission. Others can get involved if they wish in the politics of eastern Europe, our sole concern is to claim our dead and to bring them home,” he said.
“When you’ve got major humanitarian effort, as we have, it’s normal and natural to have ADF assistance and many countries have got their defence personnel on the ground already,” he added, saying this included Dutch and Malaysian military personnel.
Mr Abbott said every day the crash site remained unsecured, there was more risk of interference and that bodies would deteriorate due to their exposure to the elements.
“So we do want to get this done as quickly as we humanly can and that’s why we are exploring all options in Ukraine now,” he added.
Mr Abbott said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who was in Kiev on Friday to meet her Ukrainian counterpart, could return to the city in coming days.
He said the last of the remains of MH17 victims which have already been placed in a train and sent to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv were to be sent later Saturday to the Netherlands to begin the process of identification and repatriation.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials said their forces advanced to the outskirts of a key town north of Donetsk on Saturday in hopes of retaking the stronghold held for months by pro-Russia rebels.
The move comes as Ukrainian forces appear to have gained some momentum recently by retaking control of territory from the rebels. But Russia also appears to becoming more involved in the fighting, with the US and Ukraine accusing Moscow of moving heavily artillery across the border to the rebels.
Ukrainian national security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said Ukrainian forces were outside Horlikva, just north of the regional centre of Donetsk.
“The direct route is open for the forces of the anti-terrorist operation to the capital of the Donbass region — the city of Donetsk,” Mr Lysenko said.
Donetsk, a city of about 1 million people, is a major centre of the separatist uprising that has battled Ukrainian government forces for five months.
Russia launched artillery attacks from its soil into Ukraine on Friday, while the US said it has seen powerful rocket systems moving closer to the Ukraine border.
Those accusations sparked a strong denial from Moscow, which accuses the US of a smear campaign.
The Russian Foreign Ministry accused the US on Saturday of conducting “an unrelenting campaign of slander against Russia, ever more relying on open lies.”
The ministry took particular issue with comments Friday by White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who said Washington regards Moscow as involved in the shooting down of the airliner because it allegedly has supplied missile systems to the rebels and trained them on how to use them.
The ministry complained that these contentions have not been backed up with public evidence and it sneered at Mr Earnest for saying the allegations are backed up by claims on social media.
“In other words, the Washington regime is basing its contentions on anti-Russian speculation gathered from the internet that does not correspond to reality,” it said.
* Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press
Updated: July 26, 2014 04:00 AM