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Abbott Gives Update On Recovery And Repatriation Of MH17 Victims

As reports today indicate that fewer bodies than expected have arrived in The Netherlands, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has held his third press conference in as many days to report on the recovery and repatriation of victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.


Abbott said the government was determined to bring all the victims home. He said that the Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove, has gone to The Netherlands to receive and oversee the recovery and repatriation of bodies.

New wreckage of Flight MH17 was discovered yesterday, Abbott said. Wreckage has been strewn across villages and farmland. It is possible that further human remains, parts of the aircraft, or parts of the missile could be in “other than obvious places”.

Abbott said up to 100 fewer bodies than expected had arrived in The Netherlands. He said: “Some may never come home and that would be completely unacceptable to bereaved families.”

  • Listen to Abbott’s press conference (20m – transcript below)
  • Watch Abbott (20m)

Media release from Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Operation Bring Them Home: recovery and repatriation of victims of MH17

A train carrying the remains of the victims recovered from the MH17 wreckage reached Kharkiv, Ukraine just before 7.40pm last night (AEST).

All remains will now be transferred to the Netherlands for identification and repatriation. This process will be methodical and may take some time.

The Prime Minister’s Special Envoy, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston AC AFC (retired), is in Kharkiv for the ceremony marking the departure of the first caskets containing the victims’ remains.

A RAAF C17 aircraft, along with a Dutch aircraft, is expected to depart Kharkiv this evening. The task will continue until all the remains are transferred to the Netherlands.

More than 100 Australian officials from various agencies are being deployed to Ukraine and the Netherlands to support Operation Bring Them Home.

Late yesterday, I asked the Governor General, His Excellency General the Hon Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (retired) to leave Australia for the Netherlands. He will be present for the arrival of both the Dutch and the Australian aircraft.

It is important for the families and for our nation, that our people be received by one of our own.

The task of identifying the victims is a process that must be conducted carefully and accurately.

By its very nature, it may take some weeks before we can honour the dead by returning them to those they loved and those that loved them. But we will bring them home.

Once the Australian victims of MH17 have been identified, the Government will transport their families to the Netherlands, should they wish, so they can accompany their loved ones home.

Since the beginning the Government’s objectives have remained firm: to retrieve the bodies, to secure the site, to conduct the investigation and to obtain justice for the victims and their families.

The Australian Government will not rest until this is done.

Transcript of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s press conference.

ABBOTT: As you know, yesterday afternoon Ukrainian time, bodies from Flight MH17 arrived in Kharkiv.

Today, they’ve been prepared for airlift to the Netherlands by a Dutch-led international team including two Australian disaster victim identification experts. This afternoon Ukrainian time, the first remains will go by military aircraft, including an Australian C-17, to the Netherlands. They’ll be farewelled in Kharkiv by Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston and an Australian party. They’ll be received with honour by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Peter Cosgrove, amongst others.

Once they’re in Holland, the task of disaster victim identification will be completed. It may take quite some time, but our personnel, both Australian and Dutch, are amongst the best and the most experienced in the world.

I want to thank the Governor-General for agreeing at very short notice to go to the Netherlands for this important task. I want to thank the hundred or so Australian officials who are now abroad to assist with Operation Bring Them Home – consular officials, disaster victim identification experts, air transport investigators, Australian Federal Police and Defence personnel. They are all essential to Operation Bring Them Home. I thank them for their work. I thank them for their professionalism.

I have to say, though, that based on early inspection of the carriages in Kharkiv, we just don’t know how many bodies we have. I want to repeat that: based on early inspection of the carriages in Kharkiv, we just don’t know how many bodies we have. It’s quite possible that many bodies are still out there in the open, in the European summer, subject to interference and subject to the ravages of heat and animals. That is the predicament in which we find ourselves.

Now over the past few days, I’ve expressed serious concern about the way the recovery of human remains has been conducted. It has been, up until now, quite unprofessional and as long as it’s possible that there are any Australian remains out there, we owe it to the families to do our utmost – to do our absolute utmost – to recover them.

Let’s also never forget that we’re talking about a very large site – some 50 square kilometres – where wreckage and bodies have fallen.

Air Chief Marshal Houston who is, as you know, on the ground in Eastern Ukraine has advised me that an international investigation of the full crash site is essential for three reasons: it may uncover human remains; it may uncover personal effects; and, it may uncover vital pieces of wreckage. In his view, we need a large team conducting a forensic search – a proper scouring of the site to identify anything that may have been missed up until now – because it’s entirely possible, in his view, that there could be further human remains or further significant wreckage in the area.

It might be the partial remains of a loved one. It might be a small but critical piece of the aircraft or the missile that is the key to the investigation. Any remains or wreckage quite easily could be other than in obvious places. It could be, for instance, in wheat fields or in other crops. We should note that wreckage has been strewn across villages as well as farmland and as recently as yesterday, further wreckage was found in the area.

In Angus Houston’s view, such a forensic search can only happen if the area is secure. Of course, it’s normal in circumstances such as this for a cordon to be established that is off-limits to anyone except investigators and Angus Houston, as the Operation Bring Them Home coordinator, has a duty of care to ensure that all of the Operation Bring Them Home personnel are safe. So, we are looking – the Australian Government is looking – at options for creating a safe environment for the forensic search of the area covered by the crash trail.

We are talking to our partners in grief about more work at the United Nations and elsewhere to support the UN resolution to make it a reality that we do in fact bring them home; that we do in fact bring them all home.

I do want to remind people of the terms of the UN Resolution that was passed just the other day. Paragraph eight of the resolution “insists on the dignified, respectful and professional treatment and recovery of the bodies of the victims and calls upon all parties to ensure that this happens with immediate effect”. So, let me dwell on that for a moment – it “insists on the dignified, respectful and professional treatment and recovery of the bodies of the victims and calls upon all parties to ensure that this happens with immediate effect”.

So, what we’re looking at are measures that will make this UN Resolution a reality and not simply an aspiration. I’ve asked senior officials to prepare options for possible measures to support the execution of this resolution. I have, over the last few days, canvassed securing the site with a number of leaders and there has been strong support for securing the site because obviously it is at the heart of the UN Resolution.

I want to stress that we will work with partners, we will work under the UN Resolution – and only under the UN Resolution – but we will bring them home.

We will bring all of them home.

We must bring all of them home.

My fear is that unless we do more, unless we prepare for further possible measures, some of them will never come home and that would be completely unacceptable for bereaved families in Australia and right around the world.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, given what you’ve said about the need to protect the investigators who will be looking at the site, is the option you spoke of yesterday about some sort of multi-national force, whether it be Defence or whether it be police, still a real option; the most obvious option?

ABBOTT: Look, I’ve asked senior officials of the Government in a range of different agencies to prepare a range of options and obviously we’ll look at those options. I’m conscious of the fact that we’re talking about a very large site over which wreckage has been strewn – wreckage and bodies, regrettably, have been strewn. We’re talking about some 50 square kilometres and, yes, it’s a dangerous part of the world. So, I’m looking at a range of options and we’ll look at the options and then we’ll make some decisions. But I stress: we will work with our partners, we will work under the UN Resolution, but we will bring them home because that is the duty that the Australian Government owes to the Australian people.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, two questions, firstly on the force that may or may not be sent to the Ukraine, what are the legal constraints on sending armed forces into a foreign territory? And secondly do you have any evidence of deliberate contamination of evidence on the ground as opposed to contamination that might have been through people unwittingly trying to help or through looting?

ABBOTT: Well, I just want to refer people to the advice from Air Chief Marshal Houston that I’ve given to you earlier. That’s what I really want to focus on today, the advice from Air Chief Marshal Houston that a full forensic search is necessary if all of the bodies are to be recovered; if all of the 37 families are to be satisfied that their loved ones have come home. So, we do need a full forensic search of a large area and we’re looking at whatever options I’m given by my expert advisers; whatever options I’m given by our various agencies and arms to do this.

QUESTION: Are there legal constraints on an armed force, though? I imagine there would have to be some sort of United Nations oversight or NATO oversight?

ABBOTT: We have a resolution. It’s a resolution in unambiguous terms. I can read it to you again if you like, Andrew, but it insists on the dignified, respectful and professional treatment and recovery of the bodies, and calls upon all parties to ensure that this happens with immediate effect. So we are operating under this resolution and we’re going to continue working at the United Nations and with our partners to ensure that this resolution is given effect; that it’s not just an aspiration, that it becomes a reality.

QUESTION: Mr Abbott, to actually control an area and protect an area of 50 square kilometres, it could take many thousands of well-armed troops?

ABBOTT: That’s entirely speculative and I would discourage any speculation along those lines. It’s utterly speculative, Brendan. What we’re talking about here is what’s necessary to ensure that we have a full forensic search – that’s what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about here is enabling a full recovery operation to take place. Plainly, we haven’t had anything like a forensic search; we haven’t had anything like professional recovery operations up until now. We do need them, but they obviously have to be carried out in an appropriate environment and that’s what we’re talking about.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, what’s your reaction to reports from Russia that MH17 may have been downed by Ukrainian fighter jets?

ABBOTT: Look, I know there have been all sorts of speculation and there have been new theories – new theories – I think that is the most dignified way of describing them, but I’m just not going to go into them. My absolute overwhelming concern is Operation Bring Them Home. My absolute overwhelming concern is to work in support of Air Chief Marshal Houston, and to ensure that Operation Bring Them Home is a total reality – a total reality.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, you mentioned that you’d been canvassing securing the site with other leaders and that there was strong support for that. Can you talk a little more about how many leaders you’ve talked to? Has that been today? And when you say strong support – strong support for exactly what?

ABBOTT: Well, as you know, I’ve spoken to many leaders. I’ve spoken to quite a few leaders more than once as you would expect and I’m going to continue talking to leaders over the next 24 and 48 hours – as you would expect. Not a single one of them has disputed the need to secure the site. There is, as I say, strong support for securing the site because, let’s face it, that is at the heart of the UN Resolution which has been unanimously carried. For instance, if we look at paragraph six of the resolution it “demands that the armed groups in control of the crash site and the surrounding area refrain from any actions that may compromise the integrity of the site, including by refraining from destroying, moving or disturbing wreckage, equipment, debris, personal belongings or remains” and this is the key, “and immediately provide safe, secure full and unrestricted access to the site and surrounding area for the appropriate investigating authorities”.

So, we’re operating absolutely under the letter and spirit of this very important United Nations Resolution 2166.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, is that being breached right now?

ABBOTT: Well, I’m not going to, as it were, go into the whys and the wherefores and the who did what, when, or anything like that today. I’m just saying that it is vital that we in Australia as a nation that bears a heavy burden of grief also bears a burden of responsibility out of respect for those who have lost their loved ones to ensure that this Resolution that we sponsored at the Security Council is now appropriately acted upon and executed and that’s what we’re looking at.

QUESTION: Given that Air Chief Marshal Houston has given you an idea of what would be involved and the scale of the forensic investigation, did he also – given he knows the situation – give you an idea of how best to secure the site?

ABBOTT: Look, I’ve canvassed some things with Air Chief Marshal Houston. Air Chief Marshal Houston thus far is going largely on reports, but he’ll obviously firm his advice up in the next day or so. And at the same time I will be getting advice from other senior officials and heads of the arms and agencies of the Commonwealth Government about the various options that are needed to properly secure the site, to properly search the site, and to ensure that every single one of those bodies – as far as is humanly possible – is brought home to loved ones.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, are you contemplating excluding everybody from an area covering 50 square kilometres covering farms and villages, excluding everyone from that area apart from investigators?

ABBOTT: We’re talking about doing what’s reasonably necessary to conduct a full forensic search, a full and thorough investigation and to ensure that as far as is reasonably possible we bring them home – not just some of them, but all of them – because, as I said, as long as there is any real possibility of Australian remains being left unaccounted for, being left uncared for, being left out in the open subject to the ravages of heat and animals, as long as that possibility remains, we owe it to the families to remove that possibility by ensuring that the search and the investigation is as thorough and as respectful as it possibly can be.

QUESTION: Prime Minister, you’re relying on the UN Resolution and the goodwill of Russia who endorsed the Resolution. What prospect is there that there may be groups within this region who will not recognise the authority of either the UN or even Russia and that may interfere with your plans?

ABBOTT: Well, Dennis, my strong expectation is that all countries and all peoples will, in this respect, respect the Resolution of the United Nations because it was not only unanimously carried but it was very carefully negotiated beforehand and it is so obviously a matter of simple decency, of simple humanity, to want to ensure that all the fights that are going on in that part of the world do not interfere with this basic task of giving dignity to the dead. That’s the point I make.

QUESTION: Mr Abbott, one country that supported Australia’s Resolution was Indonesia – a country that’s lost people. Have you spoken to the new Indonesian leadership?

ABBOTT: Thank you, Brendan, for that question. Look, I did have the chance to speak to the incoming president, the president-elect this morning. We had a very genial conversation. My expectation is that Australia will have a very strong and warm friendship with Indonesia in the future, as we have had in the past, and naturally enough, as well as congratulating him, I congratulated the people and the government of Indonesia for conducting such an extraordinary democratic exercise across a vast and diverse archipelago. To do all of that in one day and to have such a result is a great credit to the people of Indonesia.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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