AUSTRALIA has won approval to send elite armed officers to protect investigative teams in their efforts to scour the Malaysia Airlines crash site for human remains after the recalled Ukrainian parliament passed special legislation.
Announcing that cadaver sniffer dogs had also been permitted to join the recovery mission, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop tweeted from Kiev: “Ukraine Rada votes #MH17 Netherlands-Australia investigation 324 in favour. Thank you Ukraine.”
According to translations of the special Ukrainian agreement, the Australian force will include “no more than 250 armed men” who are not part of Australia’s armed forces and whose task is to ensure the protection of the crash sites.
“Australian personnel are allowed to have and bear arms, as well as the use of force within the required activities to achieve the objectives (of the mission), including the use of deadly force in self-defence,” ran one translation of the agreement.
A small, unarmed reconnaissance team of international observers, including two Australians, have already made it to the site after departing from Donetsk early in the Ukraine morning.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, which spent more than six hours trying to forge a safe route, tweeted that the site had been reached for the first time in almost a week by taking a new route.
The Dutch government leading the mission confirmed the team had arrived, stating: “The team will carry out further studies on the spot. At present it is only an exploration.”
It comes amid wire reports that Ukraine’s military has announced a daylong ceasefire in its assault on pro-Russian rebels near the crash site, after the United Nations issued a plea to let investigators to the area where wreckage and bodies from MH17 still lie unrecovered.
However, in the rebel-held city of Donetsk the truce does not appear to have kicked in, with loud bombing being heard from the city outskirts and intense fighting continuing in the area of the crash.
A small reconnaissance team of international observers, including two Australians, made it close to the site after departing from Donetsk early in the Ukraine morning, but the Australian Federal Police said told News Corp Australia that despite media reports, they had not made it to the crash site.
The area is now the scene of several pitched battles between Ukrainian forces and separatists, whom Ms Bishop believes are being reinforced by heavy armaments and veteran fighters crossing from Russia and surrounding republics.
“My great fear is Russia is actively undermining this process,” Ms Bishop said from Kiev.
Ukraine has said it did not intend to bomb civilian areas of Donetsk but missiles have been incoming, many of them fired in wildly inaccurate barrages that international observers says are being fired from truck-mounted Grad missile systems and cannons.
The outskirts of Donetsk, where the foreign teams are headquartered, were last night rocked by sustained barrages, believed to have been fired inwards by Ukrainian troops who have ringed the city.
Today, it appeared that separatists are firing back out of the city.
Those people who have not fled the southwest part of the city slept on floors and prayed.
“I did not sleep,” said a contact named Anton, a shop owner who described the bombing as very close to his home.
Investigators have been unable to secure the crash area as their urgent mission to retrieve the remains of up to 80 people falls foul of bitter internal war that escalated after the plane came down on July 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew.
The resolution to allow elite Australian Federal Police officers to carry arms on sorties to the site is to protect and if necessary extract investigators if they are caught in crossfire.
As Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared August 7 a national day of mourning for the 38 Australian citizens and residents on the plane, Operation Bring Them Home still remains fraught.
Claims by Ukrainian military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko that separatists had placed landmines on road approaches to the crash site are not necessarily seen as credible, but it has managed to further complicate the issue.
Australia has said it will not risk its citizens’ lives.
There will be a full assessment by the team from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, which is working with the separatists on accessing the site, whether there is any truth to Colonel Lysenko’s claim that getting to the site was now “impossible” because of landmines.