Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s plan to deploy armed police officers to the site of the Malaysian Air crash will focus on reclaiming bodies, amid concern their presence may risk increasing tension in the Ukrainian territory held by Russian-backed rebels.
Abbott said today that his sole concern is to secure remains and bring them home. He said yesterday that 100 Australian Federal Police, some of them armed, and members of Australia’s military, were to be dispatched to recover bodies and evidence from Flight MH17 which crashed on July 17 near Donetsk in the country’s east killing 298 passengers and crew.
“The last thing we want to do is place anyone in danger,” Abbott told reporters in Canberra today. “That is our mission: to secure the remains, to assist the investigation and to obtain justice for the victims and their loved ones.”
Ukrainians’ desire for closer links with Europe, the U.S. and their allies has long been a source of tension with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who intervened in Ukraine after pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych stepped down in February, fueling the five-month insurgency. Russia accused the U.S. of fomenting the uprising that led to Yanukovych’s ouster.
They must be nuts" -- Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer, German Marshall Fund, referring to Australia’s deployment of armed officers
Spokesmen at the Russian Defense and Foreign ministries weren’t available when contacted by Bloomberg.
“They must be nuts,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said in a phone interview, referring to Australia’s deployment of armed officers. “It’s a very dangerous proposal and will be seen as a provocation by the separatists and the Russians.”
A surface-to-air missile fired from territory held by the rebels shot down the plane, the U.S. said, stopping short of alleging direct Russian involvement. Putin’s artillery is firing on Ukrainian military positions from inside Russia, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman said this week.
The Netherlands will decide this weekend on whether to send an unarmed police mission to help secure the crash site, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told parliament yesterday.
Abbott stressed yesterday that many of the Australian officers won’t be armed and said the operation, which is part of an international mission that doesn’t include the U.S., is expected to last no longer than a few weeks. Australia needs an agreement to be ratified by the Ukrainian parliament to secure a team that may be armed, he said today.
‘Not without consequences’
“Of course, I myself have moments when I think: send in the marines,” Rutte told parliament in The Hague yesterday. “But we have to weigh the geopolitical ramifications that would have. This is not an area where this would remain without consequences. So we have to build coalitions with all players involved very carefully.”
The Netherlands is sending a separate mission of 40 unarmed military police to the site to help complete the forensic work and gather evidence, Rutte said this week. The U.K. has sent one forensics specialist to Kiev and nine British scientists are working in the Netherlands to help identify bodies and secure evidence.
We believe a U.K. armed presence in eastern Ukraine would not be appropriate" -- U.K. Foreign Office
The U.K. is ready to offer logistical support and is keeping in close contact with the Australians and Dutch over how it can assist, though it won’t be sending police or technicians to Ukraine, the Foreign Office said.
“We believe a U.K. armed presence in eastern Ukraine would not be appropriate,” the Foreign Office said in an e-mailed statement. “The U.K. stands ready to provide constructive support to the mission.”
The Netherlands, Australia and Ukraine are considering proposing a United Nations resolution for an armed mission to secure the crash site, Dutch news agency ANP reported yesterday, citing diplomatic officials familiar with the matter that it didn’t identify. Australia, a Security Council member, will submit the resolution if officials at the site can’t perform duties in the next few days, it reported.
“I don’t think that you should assume that Minister Bishop will go from the Netherlands to New York,” Abbott said today, referring to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. “You may well find that she goes back to Kiev in the next day or so.”
Australia earlier dispatched 90 police to help with the crash probe. The reinforcements will first fly to the Netherlands. There were 194 Dutch nationals and 27 Australians on MH17.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko this week signed an accord under which the Netherlands will lead the international probe into the crash. The Foreign Ministry in Kiev said a separate agreement was signed yesterday for an “Australian mission of civil police” to help protect the mission. There was no mention from either Poroshenko or the Foreign Ministry on whether the Australians would be armed.
Dmitry Gau, the spokesman for rebels, wouldn’t immediately comment on the Australian plans to carry firearms, when contacted by Bloomberg News.
Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, warned against sending armed teams into eastern Ukraine to search for victims.
“There’s nothing normal in east Ukraine right now,” Erixon said in a phone interview. “Small events can trigger very large reactions from the rebels and the Russian government.”
Karl-Heinz Kamp, academic director at the German government’s Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin, said the Australian military is experienced and wouldn’t take risks, especially in a situation “where some of the rebels are drunk.”
“The only way the Australians are going to send armed officers into rebel territory is if there’s some kind of back-room deal,” Kamp said by phone. “It’s totally far-fetched but if it’s true, maybe the Russians are under such pressure to do something they told the rebels ‘you have to accept this.’”