Friday 19 December 2014

Experts arrive to secure MH17 site

Published 25/07/2014 | 06:49

A convoy of hearses bearing the remains of passengers and crew killed on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 makes its way along a road near Boxtel, Netherlands (AP)
A convoy of hearses bearing the remains of passengers and crew killed on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 makes its way along a road near Boxtel, Netherlands (AP)

A small group of Dutch and Australian investigators walked the sprawling, unsecured site where Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 went down as their governments prepared police detachments that will try to protect the crash area and help bring the last of the victims home.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said his country was ready to send 40 unarmed military police to rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine to help investigators, while Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has said his government is close to a deal to send police. Australia has 90 federal police officers standing by in Europe.

The Boeing 777 went down on July 17 as it headed to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, killing all 298 people on board. US and Ukrainian officials say it was shot down, likely by mistake, by a missile fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are fighting Ukrainian government forces.

Of the dead, 194 were Dutch citizens and 37 were Australian citizens or residents. Both countries' governments have expressed determination to see the dead brought home and the crash investigated. Security concerns and rebel interference has delayed recovery of the bodies and has limited investigators' access to the site, more than a week after the crash.

"This will be a police-led humanitarian mission," Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop said in Kharkiv, where more remains were placed on flights to the Netherlands today for identification and investigation. "And there will be body identification experts, forensic experts. And of course we will ensure that they are safe, that they will have protection."

Ms Bishop spoke to the crews of the two airplanes, an Australian C-17 and a Dutch C-130, who flew another 74 coffins from Kharkiv in government-controlled eastern Ukraine to Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

No plan for a large-scale deployment of experts and security personnel has been announced, however, and the site remained largely unsecured. Four Australian and three Dutch investigators walked among the widely-scattered plane parts past two grazing cows near the village of Hrabove on a warm summer day. The investigators were accompanied by observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The conflict continued, as the Ukrainian army today claimed that soldiers came under artillery fire from the Russian side of the border overnight and were attacked by rebels in several other places in the restive east.

The headquarters of the government's military operation in the east listed at least seven locations where rebels attacked Ukrainian troops. They also claimed that attacks on two locations, including a border crossing, were supported by artillery fire from Russia.

Late on yesterday, Ukrainian troops entered the town of Lysychansk, which has been in rebel hands for several months, the military press office said.

Rebels this morning admitted in comments carried by Interfax that they had to flee the town, which is 45 miles (70km) north-west of the regional capital Luhansk.

The movement of Russian heavy-calibre artillery systems across the border into Ukraine is "imminent," the US Pentagon said, saying Russia is escalating the military action there.

A Pentagon spokesman, Colonel Steve Warren, said the US has seen the powerful rocket systems moving closer to the Ukraine border and they could be put into the hands of Russian-backed separatists later today.

US officials warned this week that they had new evidence that Russia intended to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers to the separatist forces in Ukraine. Mr Warren told reporters that the delivery could happen at any time.

Mr Warren also said Russia continues to fire artillery across the border into Ukraine.

"For the last several days, Russian forces using Russian artillery from Russian soil have conducted attacks against Ukrainian military positions in Ukraine," Mr Warren said. "This is unquestionably an escalation from a military perspective."

He declined to say what impact the attacks have had on Ukraine's military, but said the attacks are coming from the southern border area, near Rostov-on-Don.

Mr Warren said the US has seen no indication of Ukraine firing back into Russia, and there have been no reports of civilian casualties. He said the number of Russian troops along the border continues to slowly but steadily increase. Close to 12,000 are there now.

Press Association

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