Prime Minister Tony Abbott says around two hundred Australians have been deployed overseas as part of Operation Bring Them Home.
Abbott said 50 Australian police have been pre-deployed to London, in anticipation that they can be sent to Ukraine to secure the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
Today’s press conference was the fourth in as many days from the Prime Minister.
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Transcript of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s press conference.
ABBOTT: I can report that Operation Bring Them Home is now in full swing.
Yesterday, as you would know, the first aircraft arrived from Ukraine to the Netherlands. It was a very dignified and solemn reception ceremony that the Netherlands accorded.
I want to thank the Governor-General for his presence. I want to particularly thank the King of Holland, the government of Holland, and the people of Holland for the way they received the victims – all the victims – of flight MH17.
Over the next day or so the airlift will continue jointly involving Dutch and Australian aircraft. Over coming days and weeks the remains will be identified by disaster victim identification experts from Holland and Australia, who are amongst the best in the world at this particular task.
There are now over 200 Australian personnel deployed overseas to support Operation Bring Them Home; consular officials, disaster victim identification experts, air transport safety investigators, Australian Federal Police and defence personnel.
The situation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine is more permissive, it seems, than it has been. I want to thank Air Chief Marshal Houston for the briefings that he has been providing to me and other senior officials of the government over the last two days. It is my understanding that Air Chief Marshal Houston will be going to the site later today. I also want to thank the Australian Federal Police Commissioner and other senior officials for the options that they have presented to the Government over the last day or so.
But on the site – it is still clear that nothing is happening without the approval of the armed rebels, who most likely brought the plane down in the first place. There has still not been anything like a thorough
professional search of the area where the plane came down. And there can’t be, there can’t be, while the site is controlled by armed men with a vested interest in the outcome of any investigation.
I can report that the Australian Government has pre-deployed some 50 Australian police to London. We are ready to deploy Australian police to Ukraine to help secure the site as part of an international team, under United Nations authority.
Julie Bishop, our Foreign Minister, will go to Kiev later today, along with the Dutch Foreign Minister. We will seek a memorandum of understanding with the Ukraine to allow international police to work to secure the site.
Last night I spoke to President Poroshenko. I also spoke to President Putin about the need to secure the site. The task of this international police team will be to ensure that a full and thorough search does take place so that all remains are recovered and sent to the Netherlands for identification. This way Operation Bring Them Home can successfully be concluded. Only this way can the families of the victims have the closure that they so need and so deserve at this very sad and difficult time.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, it’s very clear that this territory is not controlled by Ukraine. So if you get, you know, Ukrainian approval to go in there, what does that mean in the end? Did President Putin give you guarantees that they would actually welcome – that he would have some influence over the people there as well?
ABBOTT: As you know, President Putin and I spoke a few days ago and as I’ve already said, President Putin certainly said all the right things and so far, at least, it seems that President Putin has been as good as his word.
Without going into the detail of who said what to whom, President Putin does think it is important that the site be secured by international police so that the thorough, impartial international investigation that the UN called for and that we all think is necessary can go ahead.
The difficulty at the moment is the site is controlled by armed men with a vested interest in the outcome of the investigation. Now, exactly under what circumstances Australian police will be deployed is yet to be determined, but the police are pre-deployed to London, they are ready to go into Ukraine. We want them to go into Ukraine as part of an international team under the authority of the United Nations to do this vital job to ensure that Operation Bring Them Home is successfully completed.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, having spoken to Vladimir Putin, you felt confident afterwards that it would be safe to deploy AFP officers in that area?
ABBOTT: I accept that there is potential for difficulty. I absolutely accept that there is potential difficulty, but President Putin has said all the right things. We all know that the Russians do have some influence over at least some of the elements that are operating against the Ukrainian government in Eastern Ukraine. President Putin gave me assurances that he wanted to see the families of the victims satisfied. He wanted to see, as a father himself, grieving families given closure and, as I say, so far he’s been as good as his word and we want to ensure that he has a further opportunity to be as good as his word.
QUESTION: Malaysians negotiated with the self-styled leader in the area when they were trying to get in first. Would you feel the need to do that? And secondly, do you have agreement from international partners on the need for this police presence?
ABBOTT: Well, obviously we’re working with other countries to bring about an effective police deployment. As Australia, we recognise the government of the Ukraine. That’s what we do – we recognise the authority of the Ukraine government over Ukrainian territory. That’s what we do.
Now, what other countries do is entirely up to them. We recognise the authority of the Ukraine government over Ukrainian territory.
We also recognise the authority of UN Security Council Resolution 2166. We’ll continue to work in the United Nations, but UN Security Resolution 2166 – the one that was initiated and successfully prosecuted by Australia – makes it absolutely crystal clear that all countries should work to ensure a secure site and all countries should work to ensure that all the remains are recovered.
QUESTION: Mr Abbott, can you explain what your pre-conditions would be for the deployment of the Australian police, what you’d need to be satisfied of before that happened, and how long you think that would take?
ABBOTT: Obviously I would be very careful about putting any Australian personnel seriously into harm’s way without appropriate protection, but given the reasonably permissive environment that seems to have developed over the last few days, given the fact that Organisation for Security Co-operation in Europe officials have been able to visit the site, it seems unmolested over the last few days. I’m optimistic that these police could well be allowed on site to maintain security on site so that a full and thorough and professional search can take place.
QUESTION: Would they be armed and would they be accompanied by military personnel from Australia or some other country?
ABBOTT: These are the sort of details that we are still working on.
QUESTION: Has Mr Putin suggested that he would like Russian Forces to be part of any security operation at the site?
ABBOTT: I’m not going to go into the details of what was discussed with President Putin and, similarly, I won’t go into the details of the conversation with President Poroshenko but I think it’s vital that the search and the investigation not be contaminated by people who have a vested interest in the outcome. We have heard claims from one side that the other side should not be involved in various things and I think what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
QUESTION: Realistically, when would these people be deployed?
ABBOTT: We want to deploy them as quickly as possible – we want to deploy them as quickly as possible – because right now there could well be remains exposed to the European summer, exposed to the ravages of heat and animals. So, the quicker we can deploy a team the quicker we can get the area thoroughly and professionally searched the better for everyone.
QUESTION: How long do you estimate they might need to be there?
ABBOTT: I think we are talking about a period of a couple of weeks or so. I don’t think we are talking about Australian police and other search officials being camped out for weeks and weeks in the Ukrainian countryside. I don’t think we are talking about that at all. What we are talking about is ensuring that Operation Bring Them Home can be brought to a successful conclusion so that all of the families who have been so badly wronged by this atrocity can get the closure that they deserved. They are never, ever – never ever – going to get the restoration that they deserve but we hope to give them the closure that they deserve at this incredibly difficult time.
QUESTION: Would there be any Dutch police there or from other countries or would this Australian contingent be all that was necessary?
ABBOTT: As you probably know, Michelle, the Dutch are leading the incident investigation – the airline investigation. The Dutch have also been asked by the Ukrainians to lead the criminal investigation. So, obviously in that sense Australian police would be working to a Dutch-led investigation but who might comprise the international police team is something that we will continue to talk about.
QUESTION: Do you know how large it will be?
ABBOTT: Well, the Australian police contingent that has been pre-deployed to London is 50.
QUESTION: Are they from the international deployment group?
ABBOTT: I’m not going to go into the precise details, Brendan, of the police elements that have been deployed but they are highly capable Australian police.
QUESTION:Were they sent off our own bat or was there an agreement with some other countries that they would be pre-deployed?
ABBOTT: They were deployed by the Australian Government as part of contingency planning, as part of the sensible contingency planning that governments do in circumstances like this.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, if Australian families of the victims want to visit the site in order to, for personal reasons, to pay their respects is that something the Government would facilitate and encourage?
ABBOTT: I think at this point in time it would be ill-advised – quite ill-advised – for families to seek to travel to Ukraine and particularly to seek to travel to the site. I think that would be quite ill-advised. As you know, we are taking all the remains to the Netherlands. That’s what the Australian/Dutch airlift is now doing. The disaster victim identification teams will work on the remains as quickly and with as much dignity and respect as is possible.
Obviously, as soon as the remains are identified families will be informed. It’s then, in the end, in the hands of families what happens but it is the intention of the Australian Government to offer families the opportunity to have their loved ones brought back to Australia in an Australian military aircraft.
We will also be offering them the opportunity to fly to the Netherlands so that if they wish they can accompany their loved ones on their final journey.
QUESTION: Just back on the overall size of any multinational force, you keep saying 50 Australians, but what is your advice as to how large the overall force will need to be?
ABBOTT: It depends on the precise task, but as I say, over the last few days this has been an increasingly permissive environment and given the strong support of leaders right around the world for a thorough investigation, for a secure site, for swift return of remains, given all of those things I would expect there would be a general agreement to enable the site to be swiftly secured and for the search to go on as quickly and as professionally as possible.
QUESTION: Are you confident that the bodies that have not been returned have simply not been recovered yet from the site or is it possible some of those bodies have been taken away for some purpose?
ABBOTT: Brendan, all I can go on is what we have seen before us on the television screens over the last few days. The reports of the OSCE officials and over the last 48 hours or so the reports I have got from Air Chief Marshal Houston. There may well be remains left out in the Ukrainian fields because it’s a very violent business the explosion of an aircraft. Obviously, coming down from 30-odd thousand feet can do pretty horrible things to the human body. So, there may well be remains, possibly quite small remains, over a wide area and that is why it is absolutely essential – it is absolutely essential – that we do conduct a thorough and professional search.
Yesterday, notwithstanding the fact that only a limited investigation has so far been possible, more wreckage was discovered. The search area is up to 50 square kilometres and I want to conclude on this note: we owe it to the families; we owe it to the families of all the victims to do whatever we reasonably can to ensure that every effort is made to bring their loved ones home.
We can’t bring them back, but we can bring them home and that’s what we are determined to do.