Australians are being urged to prepare for difficult weeks ahead as authorities try to recover the dead and pressure builds for an independent investigation into how a Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down in Ukraine.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott maintained his hardline stance on Russia on Saturday while making clear Australia’s “concerns” that the evidence points to flight MH17 being downed by a surface-to-air missile fired from territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
“Australia takes a very dim view of countries which facilitate the killing of Australians, as you’d expect,” Mr Abbott told reporters.
“The idea that Russia can wash its hands of responsibility, because this happened in Ukrainian airspace, just does not stand serious scrutiny,” he told reporters in Sydney.
There were 28 Australian nationals among the 298 passengers and crew who lost their lives when the plane went down early Friday Australian time.
Late on Saturday, the federal government confirmed there were also eight permanent residents from Victoria leaving the state’s death toll at 18, including 10 nationals, and the worst in the country.
The number includes a family of five – Hans van den Hende, his wife Shaliza Dewa and their three children Piers, Marnix and Margaux from Eynesbury, west of Melbourne.
Combining the two groups – nationals and permanent residents – puts the overall Australia-linked death toll at 36 although the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s official toll remains at 28.
Australian flags across the country flew at half mast on Saturday as the tragedy continued to sink in.
“As a nation we need to prepare ourselves for difficult and painful weeks ahead as we strive to find out precisely what has happened and who was responsible,” Mr Abbott said.
It could be weeks before the remains of the dead Australians are brought home.
“Because this site is controlled by Russian-backed rebels, right now for all we know bodies remain strewn over the fields of the eastern Ukraine and armed rebels are trampling the site,” the prime minister said.
Australia now wants a binding UN resolution for an independent, impartial crash investigation, with access to the site, debris, aircraft black box and any witnesses.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was heading to New York on Saturday night to champion Australia’s cause with the UN Security Council, of which Australia is a member, ahead of a debate next week.
A monitoring mission for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) did gain temporary access to the site of the crash overnight on Friday, but was driven off by gunfire.
Late on Saturday, Pro-Russian rebels agreed to set up a 20km security zone around the crash site to allow Ukraine access to identify the bodies and hand them over to relatives.
Mr Abbott said the several heads of state, including US President Barack Obama, he’d spoken to about the investigation had expressed shock and indignation at the downing of the Boeing 777 passenger jet.
But he hasn’t spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin since the plane was shot at and Ms Bishop’s calls to her Russian counterpart have gone unanswered.
Mr Abbott on Saturday conveyed Australia’s views to Russia’s minister for economic development, Alexei Ulyukaev, who’s in Sydney for a G20 trade ministers’ conference, during a 30 minute meeting in Sydney.
He told him he expected “nothing less” than Russia’s full co-operation and support for the investigation.
Teams from the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Australian Federal Police were heading to Kiev to be in place for the investigation.
NATIONALITIES OF PASSENGERS ON MH17:
* Netherlands – 192 (including 1 dual Netherlands/USA citizen)
* Malaysia – 44 (including 15 crew, 2 infants)
* Australia – 28 is the official federal government figure, although the airline puts it at 27
* Indonesia – 12 (including 1 infant)
* United Kingdom – 10 (including 1 dual UK/South Africa citizen)
* Germany – 4
* Belgium – 4
* Philippines – 3
* Canada – 1
* New Zealand – 1
(Source: Malaysia Airline, DFAT)