The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, held his seventh consecutive daily press conference today, appearing with the Federal Police Commissioner, Tony Negus, to announce that Australian police will join the Dutch-led multinational mission to the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
Abbott said the mission “will be swift”. He said the Australian Federal Police officers will not be armed and that “meticulous planning” has gone into mitigating the risks in a “difficult environment”.
Media release from Prime Minister Tony Abbott:
Operation Bring Them Home: AFP to Join Dutch-led Multinational Police Mission
Australia will contribute to a Dutch-led multinational police mission to the crash site of MH17. I expect the first contingent of Australian police will arrive at the crash site later today with Dutch colleagues to begin their important work.
First and foremost, the purpose of the mission is to recover further remains from the site. The police mission also will seek to remove wreckage from the site and, to the extent possible, obtain information that will assist investigators.
This mission will take place with the support of the good offices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which is playing a critical role in eastern Ukraine through its Special Monitoring Mission.
This mission will be swift. Our personnel will not stay a moment longer than is needed to carry out their task.
In a difficult environment, the risks are real. Meticulous planning has gone into mitigating these risks, and we are working closely with our international partners to ensure the mission proceeds safely and successfully.
Australia is committed to doing all we can to bring home our loved ones to their families.
Transcript of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s joint press conference with AFP Commissioner Tony Negus.
ABBOTT: Ok, well I’m here along with Commissioner Negus to give you all an important update on the MH17 situation – on Operation Bring Them Home.
As I’m sure you know, on three occasions now Australians have been on site to inspect the situation and it’s very, very clear that there remain human remains and bodies and – I regret to say – body parts on site. It’s absolutely imperative that as far as is humanly possible, all of the remains are recovered for identification and repatriation to their loved ones right around the world. Remember the objectives of Operation Bring Them Home; it’s to recover the bodies, it’s to assist the investigation and to obtain justice as far as is humanly possible.
As you know, as part of Operation Bring Them Home, I’ve been in regular contact with other leaders. I’ve been in contact over the last 24 hours with President Poroshenko of Ukraine and President Putin of Russia. I’ve had further communications with Prime Minister Rutte of the Netherlands and I’ve recently had a call with Prime Minister Najib of Malaysia. Importantly, there was discussion in Donetsk last night under the auspices of the Organisation for Security Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) about safe and peaceful access to the wreckage site – that is absolutely critical.
So today I announce that the Australian Federal Police will be deployed to the site as part of an unarmed, Dutch-led, international humanitarian mission. Today there should be 49 on site of whom 11 will be Australian and I expect that there will be considerably more on site in coming days. Our objective is principally to recover the bodies – that is what the Australian people expect of us. That is what grieving families around the world deserve. Our intention under the auspices of local people is to take over the site, to ensure that the recovery of remains can go ahead as swiftly and as effectively as possible.
Our objective is to get in, to get cracking and to get out – that’s our objective. This is a risky mission, no doubt about that, but all the professional advice I have is that the safest way to conduct it is unarmed as part of a police-led humanitarian mission. I’ve had advice from our Special Envoy, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston that this is eminently doable. I’ve had advice from the Office of National Assessments that while there are risks, they can be mitigated and managed, and obviously Commissioner Negus has had advice from his people on the ground that this is safe. In fact that the safest way to do it is to do it in an unarmed way as the Australian Federal Police have in a number of other difficult situations around the world over the years.
I stress our objective is: to get in, to get cracking and to get out. We will stay as long as we can to do a professional job, but we won’t stay a moment longer than we need to. Let me repeat, we will stay as long as we can to do a thorough job, but we won’t stay a moment longer than we absolutely need to. But it is important – it is important – that we bring them home.
Again, I stress, that others can get involved if they wish in the politics of Eastern Europe. Our whole and sole purpose is to claim our dead and bring them home as quickly as we can, and that is what this next phase of Operation Bring Them Home is all about.
I’m going to ask Commissioner Negus to add to these remarks and then obviously we’ll take some questions.
COMMISSIONER TONY NEGUS: Thank you, Prime Minister. Look, as the Prime Minister said this is a police-led mission working with our Dutch colleagues with whom we’ve had a very close relationship for many years. The first priority is to locate the remains of any victims that are still on the site. We will also conduct forensic examination of the site. But as you well know and has been well publicised, the site has been contaminated and raked over many times. So we are realistic about what the forensic utility of actually doing that could be, but we’ll do it all the same in conjunction with looking for remains.
Can I also acknowledge the assistance of the Ukrainian government and also the OSCE who have been instrumental in negotiating the safest way to possibly do this. Tomorrow, as the Prime Minister mentioned, 11 officers will deploy as part of a larger team led by the Dutch and we’ll then move to increase those numbers accordingly after an assessment is done on the site.
Now, the deployment will be unarmed. It’s something that I’ve wanted to have that way since the very beginning of this mission, since we started discussing it. And I think that is the most sensible way to actually move forward. At the moment it’s a permissive environment at the site and that’s been negotiated by the OSCE, and we think that we can move in, do what we need to do and move out in a safe way.
Now there’ll be daily security assessments conducted by our people on the ground. And we now want to get on with removing any remaining victims and bring them home in a dignified way and then we can actually bring our own people home in a safe way.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, how many – or maybe Commissioner Negus – how many police are in Ukraine at the moment? How many more do you expect will be there in the next few days? And given you say the safest way to do it is unarmed, does that mean none of the contingent at the site, whether it’s Australian or Dutch, will be armed at all?
NEGUS: That’s correct, to answer your first question, there’s 190 AFP staff in Europe at the moment. Around 170 of those are in the Ukraine. That’s right, the Dutch have agreed that they will also enter the site unarmed and again that’s the best way we think we can do this safely.
QUESTION: I understand, Prime Minister, that the separatists have actually put some conditions on entry to the area, there was talk that they wanted 30 per site and I think that there might be two sites you’re going to be searching, and also that they don’t want Australians or any other investigators to stay on site. How are you going to coordinate that given that if you can’t stay you still have to secure the site?
ABBOTT: Well, Andrew, I think the information you had is information that was circulating about 24 hours ago. As I said there have been discussions in Donetsk overnight, and as a result of the discussions in Donetsk overnight under the auspices of the OSCE we are confident that we can put more numbers out there and that we will be able to take over the site, at least for the purposes of recovery of remains and to the extent necessary, investigation.
Yes, it is expected at the moment, that our teams will be going out to the site and coming back in again overnight, but we’re hoping that we can be as focused on the site as possible, and I’m confident that over time as trust builds up more will be possible. The point I want to make is that there is tremendous goodwill from everyone involved, so it seems. I think there is near universal acknowledgment that an atrocity has taken place, certainly that something dreadful – dreadful – has taken place and that whatever the reasons, whatever the rights and wrongs, that we owe it to the dead and to the grieving families to do what we can to get the remains home as soon as possible. We owe it to the grieving families to do what we can to restore people to their loved ones. That’s what I think there is near universal agreement to bring about.
QUESTION: Do you know how many AFP officers will be working on a particular site at the same time? Like any specific numbers? Are you talking dozens at a time? And then I know you said you want to get in and get out as quickly as possible – what’s the realistic timeframe of this deployment?
ABBOTT: I’d be very surprised if it goes longer than two or three weeks – I’d be very, very surprised if it goes longer than two or three weeks. This is a volatile situation, this is contested ground and we don’t want to be there any longer than is absolutely necessary. So that’s essentially what we want to do; to get in, to get cracking and to get out as soon as we can.
NEGUS: Prime Minister, perhaps I can add to that. The assessment team that’s going in later today will really make those judgments. There are five identified major sites of wreckage and they’ll be looking at those and seeing what numbers they require on site. We’ve forward positioned a large amount of people should there be a large amount of people required. If they’re not required, those people can then wait back and actually replace our people as time goes on. But again, the assessment team will be making those judgments over the next 24 hours.
QUESTION: Are you able to just get a number? A number of numbers have come out over the last two or three days, just to clarify so we’ve our ducks in a row, can you give us an idea of how many police have gone and where they are?
NEGUS: As I said, there’s around 190 people in Europe. Around 20 of those are in the Netherlands conducting the disaster victim identification process. The rest are forward positioning into the Ukraine.
QUESTION: How close are they to the site?
NEGUS: Again, it’s a difficult security environment, so what I don’t want to do is foreshadow where our people might be staging or anything else at this stage. So they’ll be put into positions where they can respond quickly and flexibly to whatever’s required from the assessment team later today.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, the Foreign Affairs Minister signed an agreement on Friday with her Ukrainian counterpart to give legal liability cover to the staff already there, do you need a new agreement? Does that one cover these people? And is there any sort of Ukrainian parliamentary process that needs to be gone through before they can go?
ABBOTT: Well, you might remember that when I announced that we were close to finalising an agreement that involved people who could be armed. If they’re unarmed people the signed agreement is absolutely all we need. It only needed to go to the Ukrainian parliament if there was that additional step and that additional step is not proposed.
QUESTION: Just to clarify on that point, I understand that Australia and the Netherlands were jointly going to ask Poroshenko to recall parliament – that request will no longer be made?
ABBOTT: No, my understanding is that President Poroshenko does intend to recall parliament to ratify those agreements, but the point I make is that our teams are going in unarmed. This is a Dutch-led, international humanitarian mission. It’s a police mission; it’s not a military mission.
QUESTION: But you say you’ll still seek early ratification of parliament? Will we still be seeking them to recall early to ratify the agreement to allow a bigger and broader agreement?
ABBOTT: I really want to caution people against misconstruing this – I really do. This is a police mission; it’s not a military mission. Yes, there are some ADF enablers involved. Yes, there’s always in circumstances like this a certain amount of contingency work, but this is a police mission, not a military one. It’s a humanitarian mission, it has absolutely nothing to do with the politics of Eastern Europe and I know there’s always a tendency to want to overstate things, but please this is not one of those situations where that would be appropriate or justified. It’s a police mission, it’s a humanitarian mission, it’s Dutch-led, it’s been carefully, carefully calibrated to be, yes purposeful but above all else, proportionate.
QUESTION: Is it fair enough to characterise the ADF involvement as logistic support and medical help if it’s needed? And just another question to Commissioner Negus, Angus Houston said this morning there have already been people on the site. Has that involved the AFP and if so, what’s changed to make today’s announcement possible?
ABBOTT: Yes, as I said, there are ADF personnel involved in this, principally as enablers. Certainly it is our intention that on site, it’s police, not ADF. Now, the difference between what’s been happening and what will happen from now is that up till now, we’ve had very small numbers of people there as observers. We’ll have significantly more numbers there as people who are taking over the site, recovering remains, investigating wreckage and dealing appropriately with the remains and with the wreckage. I should add that the meeting in Donetsk last night made it crystal clear that what local people hope for is a situation where this international team not only recovers all remains, but as far as is possible, consistent with the primary objective of recovering remains, removes wreckage and tries to restore the site.
NEGUS: Can I just add to that? There have been AFP officers at the site already, but as the Prime Minister said they’ve been part of teams of two and three going in to observe and to take photographs and those sorts of thing. This will be the next stage where we will actually be looking to recover human remains and have those properly repatriated back to Australia.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, the 157 asylum seekers on board the Ocean Protector…
ABBOTT: I don’t propose to deal with questions other than on the subject of MH17 and Operation Bring them Home.
QUESTION: Can I just ask – you talked earlier about the need to secure the site. How will this advancement do that in any way that would preserve what evidence is left? And how can you guarantee people’s safety if they’re not armed? Is anyone going to be protecting them?
ABBOTT: Well, there was a very full and frank discussion in Donetsk last night under the auspices of the Organisation for Security Co-operation in Europe. So, it was a very full and frank conversation, dealing with what needs to happen on the site. Now what needs to happen on the site is plainly that a professional team needs to be deployed to recover remains, to assist where possible with the investigation, and as far as is possible, remove wreckage. Local people, if I may put it that way, have guaranteed security and all the advice that I have, all the advice that’s coming to Commissioner Negus, is that this is the best way to ensure that people are safe. Does it mean that people are perfectly safe under all circumstances? Well, of course not. There is inevitably an element of risk in this. Frankly, we need to be prepared to take some risks in order to do the right thing by our dead and their grieving families. But we want to minimise risk, we want to mitigate against risk and the overwhelming advice from Angus Houston, from the Office of National Assessments, from the AFP on the ground, is that the best way to do that is through this unarmed, police-led, humanitarian mission.
QUESTION: Mr Abbott, is what you’re explaining, the fact that whatever’s happened over the last few days, that at the moment you’re getting a fair amount of goodwill from the population in that area?
ABBOTT: I think the short answer, Brendan, is yes – we are getting a fair bit of goodwill. The advice we’re getting from the ground is that the local personnel are polite and respectful. That wasn’t the case necessarily in the first day or so, but particularly since the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2166, that’s been overwhelmingly the experience. And I think what’s kicked in in recent days is our common humanity – our common feeling that this is dreadful beyond words. Whatever your sense of the rights and wrongs of the situation on the ground in the Eastern Ukraine, it is still dreadful beyond words that a civilian aircraft should be downed with the loss of 298 innocent people. And so out of respect for the dead, out of respect for their grieving families right around the world, out of respect for the personnel who now want to move in and do what they can to recover what’s there to be recovered, I think there is this all but universal view that there needs to be a ceasefire, there needs to be support given to the recovery teams and that recovery should now take place as swiftly as possible.