An international police task force involving at least 50 Australian officers will be used to secure the site of the MH17 crash for investigators, if Prime Minister Tony Abbott has his way.
The leaders of Russia and Ukraine have warmed to the idea of a police team providing security, under a UN Security Council resolution reached this week, and an agreement with the Ukrainian government that could be signed within days.
The police cordon could provide investigators with several weeks of protection as they untangle the fate of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, which is believed to have been downed by pro-Russian separatists firing a ground-to-air missile, and collect more remains and evidence.
Fifty Australian police officers have been pre-deployed to London, pending talks between Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her Dutch and Ukrainian counterparts in Kiev on Thursday morning Ukraine time.
“We are ready to deploy Australian police to Ukraine,” Mr Abbott said in Canberra on Thursday.
“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 there couldn’t be a full and proper inquiry while the crash site in the Donetsk region in Ukraine’s east was “controlled by armed men with a vested interest” in the investigation’s outcome.
“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.
Any deployment of Australia’s federal police team would probably be for “a couple of weeks”.
The prime minster agreed that Australian police could face “difficulties” on the ground if they are deployed, given the ongoing conflict.
But Mr Abbott added Mr Putin, himself a father, wanted the grieving families to have closure and Russia did have influence in the area.
Up to 39 Australian citizens and residents died when MH17 – on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur – was shot down on July 17 with 298 passengers and crew on board, leaving a debris trail more than 10km long.
Dutch and Australian aircraft on Wednesday began airlifting the remains of the dead from Kharkiv, Ukraine, to Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, to be identified by an international team that includes Australian forensic experts.
“We can’t bring them back, but we can bring them home and that is what we are determined to do,” Mr Abbott said.
About 1000 relatives and friends of victims, Australians among them, and dozens of dignitaries – including Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, Ms Bishop and the king and queen of Holland – were present at the arrival of the first planes loaded with of bodies in Eindhoven.
Until a specialist team in Hilversum, north Holland, begins identifying the bodies, Sir Peter said the dead represented a united humanity.
“Today they were all Australians. And they were all Dutch. And they were all the other nations,” he said.
Mr Abbott said victims’ relatives would be “ill-advised” to travel to the crash site, but all families would be given the opportunity to fly to Holland and accompany their loved ones on the final journey home on an Australian military aircraft.
Australia’s special envoy Air Chief Marshall (retired) Angus Houston – who is leading a team of more than 200 personnel as part of Operation Bring Them Home – hopes to go to the crash zone on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Australian Lamb Group has expressed the outrage of many by suspending lamb sales to Russia to send a strong message to the Russian president.
“We as an Australian company will not abide the circumstances as they are currently unfolding with regard to the shooting down of flight MH17 and the recovery operations at the crash site,” company managing director John Verrall said.