Australia, Netherlands ready to secure crash site
KHARKIV, Ukraine — A small group of Dutch and Australian investigators combed the sprawling, unsecured site where Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 went down, taking notes and photos as their governments prepared police detachments they hope can help protect the crash area and bring the last of the victims home.
The Dutch government said 40 unarmed military police were leaving the Netherlands late Friday for eastern Ukraine to help investigators, while Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said his government is close to a deal to send police. Australia has 90 federal police officers standing by in Europe.
The Boeing 777 went down July 17 as it headed to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, killing all 298 people on board. U.S. and Ukrainian officials say it was shot down, likely by mistake, by a missile fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are fighting Ukrainian government forces.
Of the dead, 194 were Dutch citizens and 37 were Australian citizens or residents. Both countries' governments have expressed a determination to see the dead brought home and the accident investigated. Security concerns and rebel interference have delayed recovery of the bodies and limited investigators' access to the site, more than a week after the crash.
"This will be a police-led humanitarian mission," Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in Kharkiv, where more remains were placed on flights to the Netherlands on Friday for identification and investigation. "And there will be body identification experts, forensic experts. And of course we will ensure that they are safe, that they will have protection."
Bishop spoke to the crews of the two airplanes, an Australian C-17 and a Dutch C-130, which flew another 74 coffins from Kharkiv in government-controlled eastern Ukraine to Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
On arrival, the coffins were carried from the planes to a fleet of waiting hearses that took them to the central city of Hilversum, where an international team of forensic experts is working to identify the remains.
No plan for a large-scale deployment of experts and security personnel had yet been announced Friday and the site remained largely unsecured. Four Australian and three Dutch investigators walked among the widely-scattered plane parts past two grazing cows near the village of Hrabove on a warm summer day. The investigators were accompanied by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The Dutch Safety Board leading the international investigation said it expects to publish "initial factual findings" as early as the end of next week, and that these will likely provide a picture of how the investigation will proceed.
The conflict continued, underlining security concerns, as the Ukrainian army on Friday claimed that soldiers came under artillery fire from the Russian side of the border overnight and were attacked by rebels in several other places in the restive east.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Thursday that the United States has "new evidence that the Russians intend to deliver heavier and more powerful multiple rocket launchers to the separatist forces in Ukraine" and that "Russia is firing artillery from within Russia to attack Ukrainian military positions."
She declined to elaborate or explain how the U.S. acquired the evidence.
In Moscow, Russia's Investigative Committee, the country's top investigative body, said a group of its investigators came under Ukrainian mortar fire Friday in the Russian village of Primiussky. One resident suffered a concussion in the shelling, it added.
The investigators were looking into the reported shelling two days earlier of the village, which lies about 2.5 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the border.
The committee said in a statement that there is no doubt the firing was deliberate and "only the poor preparations of the Ukrainian fighters" and the simultaneous evacuation of the investigators prevented deaths.
Other disturbing news from eastern Ukraine on Friday included a report from Human Rights Watch about a mass grave containing at least eight bodies that the organization reported had been unearthed Thursday near the city morgue in the town of Slovyansk. Slovyansk was freed from rebel control July 5.
Human Rights Watch research Yulia Gorbunova said on the organization's website that "it's too soon to say whether the people buried there were victims of a crime." She said residents told her men in camouflage arrived in a truck and buried the bodies on June 11. Those who came to the site as it was unearthed included people with relatives who went missing while insurgents held the town. HRW says insurgents have kidnapped and tortured people they suspect of supporting the government.
Kim reported from Hrabove, Ukraine and Associated Press writers David McHugh in Kiev, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Jim Heintz in Moscow also contributed to this report.