Frustration as investigators again fail to reach MH17 site

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

For a second consecutive day, Australian and Dutch unarmed police have been forced to turn around before reaching the MH17 crash site due to heavy shelling in eastern Ukraine.


Ukraine’s army claims it’s now seized control of part of the surrounding area, but international investigators aren’t optimistic.

As Marina Freri reports, they fear some of the remains may now be trapped in a ring of belligerent fire and never recovered.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)

Australian and Dutch investigators are still trying to reach the site where the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 went down.

Monitors from the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe are travelling with them.

But the international inspectors’ attempts to reach the crash site have twice been halted by intense fighting, leaving their mission to recover all human remains not only far from accomplished but also in doubt.

Deputy head of the OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine, Alexander Hug, couldn’t hide his frustration as the promises of safe passage – from both sides in the conflict – were once again broken.

“All parties involved need to understand that guns must go down, checkpoints must disappear and we as well as the experts must have freedom of movement to access this site free, without interruption, without risks, so that we can continue our job there. On that site there are still body parts missing, there are still bodies there, there is debris there, there is a job to be done. It can only be done if these guns are down and we have no risk on our way there. We are sick and tired of being interrupted by gunfights despite the fact that we have agreed that there should be a ceasefire.”

Last weekend, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced Australian Federal Police officers would enter the crash site in Donetsk unarmed.

But with continuous shelling just kilometres from the site, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop won’t rule out allowing Australians to carry weapons for self-defence.

Ms Bishop says she wants the Ukrainian parliament to ratify a deployment agreement she’s signed with her Ukrainian counterpart that would allow Australia to send in armed police or soldiers.

“Part of that is to have the right, should it ever be necessary, to bring arms into the country for self-defence. Now, I don’t envisage that we will ever resort to that. But it’s a contingency planning and you’d be reckless not to include it in this kind of agreement. But I stress our mission is unarmed because it is an humanitarian mission.”

Inspectors say they will now try to access the site for a third time.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has told Macquarie Radio he’ll seek to lobby both sides of the conflict to honour a ceasefire as, he says, the situation on the ground remains “confused”.

“We were blocked yesterday. We were blocked the day before. My understanding is that we are going to have another go today. But I’ll be talking soon to the people on the ground to make sure that it happens: it happens as quickly as possible and as soon as possible.”

Two weeks on from the alleged downing of flight MH17, identifying victims may also prove difficult. 

Information concerning where victims originally lay has been lost because the bodies have been moved to be put on a refrigerated train to Kharkiv.

To identify victims, experts say they will use DNA, fingerprints and dental records, when possible, or by examination of personal belongings.

Despite these concerns, the head of the Dutch recovery mission in eastern Ukraine, Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, has vowed no victim of the MH17 crash will be left behind.

“It is frustrating to have to wait to do the job they came to do. Their motivation comes from the deep conviction that the relatives in all the different countries are entitled to have their loved ones and their personal effects returned to them.”

Ukraine and eleven countries that lost citizens in the crash have agreed in principle to set up a joint team of prosecutors to examine possible criminal charges.

It will add to several other investigations under way to determine what caused the crash, who is liable, and to identify the victims’ remains.

A number of countries, including Australia, have met in The Hague to discuss a joint strategy.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for human rights, Navy Pillay, says the alleged downing of flight MH17 may amount to a war crime.

“(The) Commissioner has indicated this may amount to a war crime. I think also the High Commissioner said there’s a need for a prompt, thorough, independent impartial and effective investigation… I think that is what needs to be done so as to establish the facts and circumstances of what has happened and therefore then there can be the next step in accountability for those who may be deemed the perpetrators in this crime.”