Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced a major operation to secure and identify the bodies from the Malaysia Airlines disaster in Ukraine.
Mr Abbott said Operation Bring Them Home would be coordinated from Ukraine by former Australian Defence Force chief Retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston.
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The operation will involve consular officials, victim identification and forensic experts and air safety investigators in Ukraine and the Netherlands.
An Australian C-17 military transport aircraft will arrive in the Netherlands later today and will help transport bodies out of Ukraine.
Mr Abbott said when the bodies had been removed, experts would begin the painstaking process of identifying the 37 Australian citizens and residents who perished.
“I need to caution that this is necessarily a painstaking and methodical process that will take some weeks,” he told reporters in Canberra.
“As frustrating as this is, we do have to get it right. It would be terrible to compound families’ grief by risking the misidentification of their loved ones.”
Evidence tampering on industrial scale, Abbott says
Mr Abbott has welcomed the UN Security Council’s unanimous decision to back a resolution setting up an independent investigation into the crash which killed 298 people.
The resolution also demands access to the crash site in eastern Ukraine.
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The Prime Minister says he is disturbed by the scenes of the crash site.
“Anyone who has been watching the latest footage would appreciate that there is still a long, long way to go. After the crime comes the cover-up,” Mr Abbott said.
“What we have seen is evidence tampering on an industrial scale and obviously that has to stop.”
Mr Abbott said the crash site must be secured and flagged Australian participation in some kind of multinational police force in eastern Ukraine.
“Obviously there does need to be security for the site and I would think that the security for the site would best be provided by the countries that have been so wronged here,” he said.
“There’s quite a long way to go between what we’ve got now and what we would like to see, which is a fully secure and protected site where investigators can go about their task without hindrance from others, without hindrance from armed rebels, without hindrance from anyone who might seek to interfere with the investigation.”
PM joins other dignitaries to sign book of condolences
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says the Security Council resolution is only the first step in bringing justice for victims of the tragedy.
Speaking from Washington, Mr Shorten says it is up to Russian president Vladimir Putin to ensure there is a proper investigation.
“The world will now watch if Mr Putin and the Russian Federation will follow through the resolution with deeds and actions … the world wants justice,” he said.
Mr Abbott says Mr Putin will be held to his words.
Victims’ bodies kept on train
Days after flight MH17 was shot down above Ukraine, the bodies of victims sit in refrigerated train carriages at a remote station.
“Let’s now get cracking with providing security on the site,” he said.
“Get the experts in and to conduct the investigation fully, fairly, impartially, so that as far as is humanly possible we can know exactly what happened to this plane, we can learn as much as we possibly can about who did it, how it happened, and then punish those responsible.”
Mr Abbott says he has not yet received advice sought on whether Australia will officially classify the MH17 disaster as a terrorist act, a move which would provide victims’ families compensation of up to $75,000.
Malaysia Airlines is offering victims’ families an immediate payment of $US5,000 and Mr Abbott has pledged to support families.
“I do wish to assure Australian families in grief and in pain that we will be erring on the side of generosity when it comes to their treatment,” he said.
Mr Abbott this morning chaired Cabinet and national security committee meetings and later was among dignitaries who signed a condolence book on the Marble Foyer of Parliament House.
In the Prime Minister’s message of condolence, he said Australians were united in grief and in determination to ensure justice was done.
“There were 298 people on this aircraft and their deaths offend our sense of justice,” he wrote.
“We grieve for all, but particularly for the 37 men, women and children who called Australia home.”
There will be an electronic MH17 condolence book on the Prime Ministerial website, and State and Territory governments are making arrangements for condolence books.