Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's dispatch of 190 armed police to guard the Malaysia Airlines crash site in separatist-held eastern Ukraine has stirred controversy and concern for the safety of the mission.
Forty Australian soldiers will also be sent to back the security force in its attempt to ensure that the 10-day-old crash site isn't further disturbed and that the remains of dozens of victims still scattered over square miles of countryside can be recovered and returned to their home countries.
Australia lost 38 citizens and permanent residents in the July 17 downing of Flight 17.
"That is our mission, to secure the remains, to assist the investigation and to obtain justice for the victims and their loved ones," Abbott told journalists in the capital, Canberra, the Sydney Morning Herald reported in its Sunday editions. "It is, I stress, a humanitarian mission. Others can get involved if they wish in the politics of Eastern Europe."
But the crash site is in an area under the control of armed pro-Russia separatists who haven't paused their uprising against Ukrainian government forces despite the downing of the Boeing 777 that killed all 298 passengers and crew members aboard.
U.S. intelligence reports say the surface-to-air missile that destroyed the plane en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, was fired from territory under militant control. The Russian-made missile and Buk launching system were probably supplied to the separatists by Russia, and the insurgents would have needed training from Russian forces in use of the sophisticated weapons system, U.S. officials contend.
Russia also has been beefing up its troop presence on the Ukrainian border and has sent even more powerful artillery to the region as it steps up aid to the embattled insurgents, the Pentagon said Friday.
An international disaster investigation has been hampered in its efforts to conduct a thorough search-and-recovery operation at the crash site because of resistance by the militants who have been occupying much of the eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Luhansk for four months.
Dutch investigators, who were designated to take the lead in the crash investigation because 193 victims of Dutch nationality were aboard the doomed aircraft, said they had been rebuffed by the separatists for a second day in their efforts to examine wreckage and decaying remains still scattered around fields of corn and sunflowers.
Abbott said Saturday that despite the dangers and obstructions, armed personnel were needed to secure the site and protect investigators.
''The last thing we want to do is to place anyone in danger,'' he said. ''But we do want to bring our dead home. We want to do it as quickly as possible."
One Australian couple who lost their daughter in the disaster defied warnings against entering the volatile region where the remains of the plane and its victims lie to lay a wreath, Sky News Australia reported.
Angela Rudhart-Dyczynski and Jerzy Dyczynski broke down in tears as they laid a bouquet on a large piece of debris from the plane on which their daughter, Fatima, had been a passenger, the broadcaster reported from the scene near the village of Hrabove.
Countries that lost citizens in the crash have pushed for outside involvement because of the unsecured debris field and numerous reports of separatist fighters looting personal effects of the victims and carting off pieces of the plane before investigators can examine them.
Abbott's deployment of armed police has stirred criticism, but Australian opposition leader Tanya Plibersek said the Labor Party supported the mission in spite of the risks.
"This is a very dangerous area of Ukraine; there are heavily armed rebels on the site," the Herald quoted her as saying. "They have been haphazard about allowing access to the site; it's plain that not all of the rebel groups are cohesive, that there are different units operating that don’t follow a clear command structure."
A senior defense official quoted by the newspaper but not identified warned that the Australian police could be walking into extreme danger in an area held by militants opposed to the government in Kiev that would be approving the foreign mission.
"We don't have the language skills or knowledge of the area," the official said.
Australian defense analyst Peter Dean, however, told the newspaper that Australia might be seen as a more neutral actor in the international inquiry than the Netherlands, which is a member of the U.S.-led NATO defense alliance. It is Russian President Vladimir Putin's objection to Ukraine joining the European Union or NATO that has fueled the pro-Russia uprising in eastern Ukraine and prompted Russia to annex Ukraine's Crimea region.
Dean, director of studies at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at Australian National University, said the security of the Australian contingent would depend on whether "our government can make its intentions clear and be accepted on those grounds" that the mission is strictly humanitarian.
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