MH17 Rescue Effort Shambolic, Says Abbott; Like Putting Criminals In Charge Of A Crime Scene

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has maintained his strong rhetoric against the conduct of the recovery effort for Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, describing it as “shambolic” and akin to “putting criminals in charge of a crime scene”.


However, Abbott stepped back from criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin: “He did say all the right things. I want to stress what he said was fine. The challenge now is to hold the President to his word.”

Abbott said he had spoken to a range of world leaders, including US President Obama, Netherlands Prime Minister Rutte, UK Prime Minister Cameron, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib, German Chancellor Merkel and French President Hollande. He also indicated that he would make himself available to families of the Australian victims.

Abbott announced that he had appointed the former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, as his Special Envoy to lead Australia’s efforts on the ground in Ukraine.

  • Listen to Abbott’s press conference (27m – transcript below)
  • Watch Abbott (27m)

Text of statement released by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston to lead Australia’s response to MH17 investigation and recovery efforts

HoustonAir Chief Marshal (retired) Angus Houston AC AFC has been appointed the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy and will lead Australia’s efforts on the ground in Ukraine to help recover, identify and repatriate Australians killed in the MH17 crash.

He will remain in Ukraine as long as necessary to complete the task.

Once the site can be accessed by international investigators, Air Chief Marshal Houston will coordinate Australia’s consular, diplomatic, disaster and crash site investigation response in Ukraine.

He will work closely with local and international authorities on consular support for the families of the Australian victims, on disaster victim identification and on the crash investigation itself.

The first priority will be to recover the remains of the victims and to secure safe and sustained access to the MH17 site.

In close cooperation with the Ukraine government, the International Civil Aviation Organisation and other international partners, Air Chief Marshal Houston will work to ensure a comprehensive investigation into the MH17 crash is swiftly underway.

To date, the Australian Government has deployed 45 officials to assist including 20 personnel from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 20 Australian Federal Police Officers, two Australian Transport Safety Bureau investigators and three Defence officials.

The Australian Ambassador in Warsaw (who is accredited to Ukraine), a regional consular officer and embassy officials from Moscow, London and Warsaw, have also arrived in Kiev as part of Australia’s response team.

Other specialist teams are on standby for immediate deployment when access to the site is secured. A C17 military transport aircraft is on standby to depart for Ukraine.

The recovery, identification and repatriation process will be complex and will likely take a number of weeks to complete. This will be a difficult and painful period, and the families of the victims will have the Government’s full support.

Our thoughts continue to be with the families of the victims.

Transcript of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Canberra press conference.

ABBOTT: Today is the third day that investigators from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have sought access to the MH17 site. It is true that they have been given somewhat better access today than on the previous two days, but as anyone who has been watching the footage would know this is still an absolutely shambolic situation. It is an absolutely shambolic situation.

It does look more like a garden clean-up than a forensic investigation and given that 298 people have died, given that 37 Australians are amongst the dead, it is imperative that we get a properly secure site and a proper investigation. It is absolutely imperative that we bring them home, but in order to bring them home, we have got to first get them out. That is what all of our energies and efforts are directed to – bringing them out so we can get them home.

We want to retrieve the bodies, we want to investigate the site, and we want to punish the guilty. That’s what we want to do.

I can report that there are now some 45 Australian officials either abroad or on their way to support the Australian dead. Mostly they have been deployed to Kiev. There are consular officials, disaster victim identification officials, Australian Federal Police members, air transport investigators and we have a C-17 military transport on stand-by if required for deployment to the Ukraine.

Since Friday we have had meetings of the National Security Committee every day. I had a Cabinet hook-up yesterday to ensure that all of my colleagues are well-informed as to what the Government is doing.

This morning I visited the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade crisis centre to thank the team there for the work they’ve been doing over the last four days .Their job has been to speak with the families and next of kin of the victims. It is difficult and harrowing work, at a difficult and daunting time and I want to thank them for their professionalism and their compassion. They are doing a splendid job under difficult circumstances.

After visiting the crisis centre, I made my first two calls to victims’ families. My intention is to call all of the families of victims that would like a call from their Prime Minister. I imagine that some will want calls, some may not. I don’t want to intrude on anyone’s grief, but on the other hand I want everyone to know that their Prime Minister is available to them at a time like this.

Overnight, I have spoken with Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands, I’ve spoken with President Poroshenko of Ukraine, I’ve spoken with David Cameron of the United Kingdom, with President Obama of the United States, with Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia, with Chancellor Merkel of Germany and with President Hollande of France. I’ve now spoken to Prime Minister’s Rutte and Cameron and President Poroshenko three times since last Friday. I’ve spoken to President Obama and Prime Minister Najib twice since last Friday and I’ve made my initial calls to Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande and of course, I’ve also spoken to Prime Minister Key of New Zealand. Also, overnight I spoke to President Putin of Russia.

I should say two things: first, that the mood of the leaders that I spoke to is firmer and sterner now than it was in the 24 hours immediately subsequent to the downing of this aircraft. It is a firmer and sterner mood than it was and frankly it’s firmer and sterner as it should be as more and more facts emerge about this terrible, terrible event.

As for the conversation with President Putin, I’m not going to go into details. I don’t think it is fair to my international interlocutors to go into great detail as to the nature of the conversation but to President Putin’s credit, he did say all the right things. I want to stress what he said was fine. The challenge now is to hold the President to his word. That’s certainly my intention and it should be the intention of the family of nations to hold the president to his word.

I can announce today that Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston is already in Kiev. He arrived there last night to be my Envoy in the Ukraine, to be my Envoy on the ground to ensure that the Australian effort is handled with authority, with reassurance and with coordination. As a former Chief of the Defence Force, as a former very senior military officer, as someone who has had recent experience with MH370, he is perfectly placed to provide the authority, the reassurance and the coordination that we need in an incident of this significance.

Again our determination is to ensure that there is justice for the dead, and closure as far as is humanly possible for the living. I do want to say that over the next 24 hours there is going to be an Australian sponsored resolution put to the United Nations Security Council. It is a strong resolution calling for full and unfettered access to the site, ensuring that the bodies are properly retrieved, properly dealt with – with the respect and dignity that they deserve.

As you know, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, left Australia on Saturday night; she arrived in Washington Sunday morning, Washington time. She received a series of security briefings in Washington yesterday, Washington time. She will be spending Monday, local time, in New York, prosecuting our case at the United Nations Security Council.

I don’t know how our resolution will go. I know that it should be carried by acclamation. Decency and justice requires that this resolution be carried by acclamation but as we all know, these are difficult and daunting times and it is wrong to be too certain about what the future might hold.

What I do want to you assure you all of is the utter determination of the Australian Government to do the right thing by the victims of this terrible crime.

We will not rest until we have done all we humanly can to retrieve the bodies, to secure the site and to ensure justice.

QUESTION: The UN Resolution Prime Minister – there is a report by Reuters that says that Russia rejected to some of the wording of that resolution and instead of using the phrase “shooting down of the aircraft” wanted to change that “downing of the aircraft’ it may seem a small point but is there any concern about Russians pushing back against that UN resolution?

ABBOTT: I am going to leave the specific negotiations about the wording to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, but there is no doubt this aircraft was shot down. There is really no doubt left that this aircraft was shot down and frankly we should be upfront and open about exactly what has happened.

QUESTION: In your discussion with Vladimir Putin I sense that there was obviously expressed regret for it but did you sense or did he express responsibility; implied or explicit?

ABBOTT: I’m not going to go into the precise detail of who said what to whom, because I don’t think that’s fair, but there was, if I may say so, a wider ranging and I think more frank discussion than we had with the Ambassador for instance or indeed the Trade Minister in Australia.

QUESTION: Given that you need to secure that site, has there been any conversation about having a multinational force take control of the ground?

ABBOTT: I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here, Chris. I really don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here, but our objective has got to be to secure and police the site and there is no doubt that at the moment the site is under the control of the Russian backed rebels and given the almost certain culpability of the Russian backed rebels in the downing of the aircraft having those people in control of the site is a little like leaving criminals in control of a crime scene. So I do think it is quite important – quite important – that a proper authority be in charge of this site and be seen to be in charge of this site.

QUESTION: You said Mr Putin is saying the right things but there is apparently no evidence that the right thing is occurring on the ground. How long before the international community’s patience runs out?

ABBOTT: This is a very good question. My sense is that all of the leaders that I have spoken to were in a much firmer and sterner mood now than they were 48 hours ago and I think we should be encouraged by this because as I say, this is not an accident – this is a crime. No doubt about it. Not an accident – a crime.

When we are in the presence of criminal behaviour, on a vast scale, it does need to be appropriately investigated and punished.

QUESTION: Why has that resolve among your international fellow leaders firmed in the last 48 hour, has any new evidence emerged?

ABBOTT: What we’ve seen is more and more evidence to corroborate the initial, very strong view that this aircraft was downed by a missile fired from Russian-backed rebel territory. Quite possibly supplied by the backer. I think what is compounded that is looking at what has happened to the wreckage, what has happened on the site, and while things are marginally better today according to the monitors from the organisation for security and cooperation in Europe, while things are marginally better today, they’re still not good. The train where the bodies seem to be held has been prevented from leaving by the Russian-backed rebels and again this is completely unacceptable.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, a couple of questions; are you getting ready to declare this a terrorist act so families of the victims can receive payments under victims of overseas terrorism scheme and while you don’t want to say too much about your conversation with Vladimir Putin, there is a readout from the Kremlin which on a couple of translations suggest there was a discussion about not politicising the tragedy. Did that happen and if it did what did that refer to?

ABBOTT: I’m just not going to go into the conversation. I want to try to make it my practice not to go into details of who said what to whom when I am having discussions with international leaders because I do want to be able to have candid conversations with them. I don’t want people talking to me to feel that they are addressing a public meeting. I don’t want to, as it were, always negotiate in public on things of gravity and this is obviously a situation of the utmost gravity.

As for the declaration that you asked me about, I have sought advice on that, obviously it was one of the very early measures of the new Government to put in place the victims of overseas terrorism payment system and I have sought advice on that.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, in June, the G-7 met without Russia, in Brussels instead of going to Sochi. Have you put any serious thought to banning Russia from the G20 and what considerations would you have to think about in order for that to happen?

ABBOTT: Again, I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The G20 meeting doesn’t take place until mid-November. It’s four months away. There’s a lot of water that will almost certainly flow under the bridge between now and November. I just think it’s unhelpful to start speculating about what might happen in four months now.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, you talk about Russian-backed rebels, do you have any information or indeed maybe intelligence on – does it go to Russia controlling these rebels or merely backing them at some distance, if you get what I mean?

ABBOTT: My understanding is that there are various groups that are in control of various bits of territory in the Eastern Ukraine. But there is a very large degree of external support and external influence over them.

QUESTION: Are you confident that a Russian veto can be avoided in the Security Council?

ABBOTT: Let’s not forget Michelle that at all times from the very top down Russian spokesmen and Russian leaders have stressed that they want to see a full investigation.

Now, it’s easy to talk – it’s much harder to do.

It’s all very well to say the right thing, the important thing is to do the right thing. That’s what we are looking for; we are looking not just for good words, we’re looking for right action and that’s what we have to hold the Russians to.

QUESTION: [inaudible] vetos?

ABBOTT: Let’s wait and see. My determination, the determination of the Australian Government and I think the Australian people is to do whatever we humanly can to retrieve the bodies, to secure the site and to ensure that justice is done.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, did the Russian President agree to have ongoing talks with you and to a human question, as a father as opposed to a Prime Minister, when you see the personal details of the individuals lost, how do you react to that over the last couple of days?

ABBOTT: We have seen the faces of the dead over the last couple of days and no one could not be moved because those who were lost in the plane, they could be anyone, they could be everyone – that’s the point.

We are a people who love to travel and all of us think of our own loved ones who have been travelling at a time like this and we want to see them protected, we want to see our skies safe. So obviously, as a human being, that’s the way I feel.

But I stress – the responsibility of the Australian Government is to do its duty and to exercise its judgment and that’s what we’re doing.

QUESTION: You mentioned before that many, if not the majority, of the bodies of these victims of this tragedy are sitting on a train. Do you have any further advice as to what the hold-up is, where they might be going?

ABBOTT: It seems that this is the difficulty, the stickiness, indeed the prickliness, of the people who are in control of this part of the Ukraine and that’s why, as I say, it’s important to retrieve the bodies and to secure the site, because as long as the bodies and the site are under the control of the Russian-backed rebels, we’re going to see interference after interference, impediment after impediment.

QUESTION: Who will be in charge of the independent investigation and given that Russia is quibbling over some words in the resolution, are you worried that they’re simply stalling for more time?

ABBOTT: Let’s see how things play out. I’ve obviously expressed previously my anxieties that people would say the right thing while at the same time frustrating any attempt to do the right thing – I’ve previously said that.

As for the investigation, well, at law the Ukraine is responsible for the investigation because the event happened in the Ukrainian territory, but the Ukrainians quite properly have delegated the responsibility for leading the investigation to the Dutch because the Dutch have a very high level of capacity to do these things and with almost 200 victims they obviously have the largest burden to bear. But, the Ukraine has invited Australia to be part of the investigation and that’s why we’ve already deployed investigators to Kiev.

QUESTION: Just on that element of the wording, if there wasn’t to be a vote tonight, would that be seen as delaying in your view?

ABBOTT: Yes, I think it is important that we move on as swiftly as we can to secure our objectives because every day that goes by the bodies are deteriorating obviously, every day that goes by the site is further contaminated and we just have to move as swiftly as we humanly can here.

QUESTION: You’ve obviously had very comprehensive briefings over the last few days from our own experts, intelligence people or whatever and from the Americans about this, but have you got any idea of the state of the site at the moment? Obviously with an explosion like this at high altitude, the area of the crash site would be very large; the debris field would be very large. Do people you’re hearing from believe that there’s going to be enough left to give an idea of what caused the crash?

ABBOTT: The advice I have is that access to the site and forensic access to significant amounts of the wreckage is likely to give us a very clear idea of what precisely downed the aircraft. Now, you’re right, this aircraft was very badly damaged at high altitude and it came down in pieces over a quite large area – an area of quite a few square kilometres. It’s horrible even to mention, but there are body parts over a very large area as I’m advised and so a complete forensic investigation obviously would require a large team, considerable amount of time and full and unfettered access to a very large area and as we know already, there’s been a great deal of interference. Our challenge is not to undo the past – we can’t. Our challenge is to secure the future and that’s what we’re determined to do.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, have you had an indication with regards to the UN vote where China is going to… where they’re going to land?

ABBOTT: Foreign Minister Bishop is in New York. I think that we can rely upon our Foreign Minister to be absolutely indefatigable in rounding up the numbers for this resolution.

QUESTION: Just a follow up to that, you’ve spoken to four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China’s the last one. Will you be seeking to speak to the Chinese leadership?

ABBOTT: I will be making all the calls that I think are necessary. I’ll be focussing on the calls which I think are priorities and the priority is to retrieve the bodies, to secure the site and to achieve justice: that’s my priority.

QUESTION: If I could just on a domestic policy issue, the repeal of the carbon tax…

ABBOTT: Look, with respect, not yet – not yet.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, if there was a Russian veto of Australia’s resolution how would that be viewed by you and this country?

ABBOTT: Very badly – very, very badly. We will do our best to craft a resolution which under the circumstances no reasonable person could object to. That’s what we will do. It won’t be wishy-washy or mealy-mouthed, but nevertheless, it will be crafted in such a way that no reasonable person could object to it. Once this resolution has been passed, some consequences then follow and the consequences are the retrieval of the bodies, the securing of the site and the administration of justice.

QUESTION: On a personal level, Prime Minister, you spoke with two families. How difficult was that and can you give us a sense of what you said to them?

ABBOTT: These are families in very, very difficult circumstances, numb with grief, only beginning to come to terms with their loss. I think that for all 37 families there is going to be a very, very long period in which they come to terms with this. I’m sure you never really come to terms with a loss of this magnitude. It’s hard enough to cope with standard bereavement, but bereavement in these circumstances is ghastly – ghastly almost beyond the imagination of most of us.

So, look, I will do what I can as one human being to another to offer some words of comfort and consolation, but in the end my responsibility is to be available to Australians who have suffered very grievously, but my duty is to ensure that we secure the best possible future for everyone, including the families who have been so terribly, terribly badly wronged.

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