Australia has deployed federal police to Europe to stand ready to enter Ukraine and help secure the MH17 crash site, Prime Minister Tony Abbott says.
Almost a week after the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down, killing 298 people, authorities still need to conduct a thorough and professional search of the area in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine which is held by Russian-backed armed separatists.
Australia has now taken action and deployed 50 federal police officers to London.
“We are ready to deploy Australian police to Ukraine,” Mr Abbott said in Canberra.
The site, which has been estimated as 50 square kilometres, cannot be properly searched while armed men “with a vested interest in the outcome of any investigation” continued to be present, the prime minister added.
The Prime Minister told reporters in Canberra that the situation on the ground in eastern Ukraine has improved, but he says it is a long way from free and unfettered access to the crash site.
“On the site, it is still clear that nothing is happening without the approval of the armed rebels, who most likely brought the plane down in the first place,” he said.
“There has still not been anything like a thorough professional search of the area, where the plane came down.”
Operation Bring Them Home
Mr Abbott says Operation Bring Them Home to repatriate the bodies of 37 Australian victims is in full swing.
He says there are now over 200 Australian officials deployed overseas to support the operation.
“We want to bring them home as soon as possible,” he said.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was due in Kiev on Thursday and along with her Dutch counterpart would seek a memorandum of understanding with Ukraine to allow international police to secure the site.
A police team would ensure a “full and thorough” search took place and all of the remains of the victims were recovered and sent on to the Netherlands for formal identification.
“Only this way can the families of the victims have the closure they so need and so deserve at this very sad and difficult time,” Mr Abbott said.
The prime minister has also spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko about the need to secure the site.
Mr Abbott said the Australian government recognised the Ukrainian government’s authority over all of its territory, which is why the overarching agreement would be with it.
The deployment of Australia’s federal police team would probably be for a period of “a couple of weeks” and all steps would be taken to ensure their safety.
“We want to deploy them as quickly as possible because right now there could well be remains exposed to the European summer,” Mr Abbott said.
Mr Abbott would not go into the detail of his latest conversation with the Russian president, but said so far at least he had been good to his word
“President Putin does think it’s important that the site be secured by international police so that the thorough, impartial international investigation that the UN called for … can go ahead,” Mr Abbott said.
He said there would be difficulties facing the police as the site was controlled by armed men with a “vested interest” in the outcome of the investigation
But he said the Russians had some influence over at least some of the elements that were operating against the Ukrainian government.
“President Putin gave me assurances that he wanted to see the families of the victims satisfied. He wanted to see, as a father himself, grieving families given closure,” Mr Abbott said.
Mr Abbott said Australian was determined to bring back its dead as soon as possible.
“We can’t bring them back, but we can bring them home and that is what we are determined to do,” he said.
Up to 39 Australian citizens and resident died when MH17, on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over Donetsk on July 17, leaving a debris trail more than 10km long.