JOURNALIST Dutch and Australian experts finally, finally reached the crash site of Malaysian Flight 17 today – a full two weeks after the plane was blown from the sky over eastern Ukraine. Pro-Russian rebels and fierce fighting blocked the teams from accessing the site earlier. The group is determined to recover the rest of the victims’ bodies still out there, comb the debris field for clues and try to establish evidence on what happened and why. Australia lost 38 people aboard that flight, among a total of 298 souls. Its top diplomat flew to Ukraine to facilitate the investigation process - she joined me earlier from Kyiv. Julie Bishop, Foreign Minister of Australia, welcome to the program.
JULIE BISHOP Thank you.
JOURNALIST Upon arrival, the investigators were said to have paused for a moment of silence to mark two full weeks since Flight MH17 just came out of the skies above eastern Ukraine. What is important for all of us to remember as this investigation truly gets underway?
JULIE BISHOP It is unthinkable that we should allow those responsible for this to get away with it. That’s why Australia – we lost 38 residents – and the Netherlands – 194 Dutch were killed – are absolutely determined to not only retrieve the bodies and the remains and bring them home to their loved ones, but also to carry out a thorough, independent, impartial investigation to find those culpable and to hold them to account.
JOURNALIST One of the priorities is certainly to recover as you said all of the bodies that are there at that crash scene. Do we even know how many are still missing?
JULIE BISHOP Jim, our advance party was able to get onto the site today after four days of trying. We took an alternative route and they were on there for a couple of hours. I understand they are now on their way home. We know how many body bags were transferred from Kharkiv to the Netherlands but we don’t know how many bodies or remains are still on the site. There have been some international forensic experts who have actually been on the site who have indicated to me that it could be as many as 80 but we won’t know until our investigative teams are on the site and combing the crash site for remains and that’s the grisly and sobering task that they must undertake from now on.
JOURNALIST Obviously the greatest risk here is the ongoing fighting in the area. Ukraine – officials there in Kyiv have offered up a one-day ceasefire. Is that even close to enough?
JULIE BISHOP No, of course not. We need to be on the site for probably weeks. We don’t want to be on there for a minute longer than we have to be but there is a painstaking task ahead of us. What we need, guaranteed, is this humanitarian corridor that we accessed today and a ceasefire to enable our teams to get onto the site and do their work. The Ukrainian Government has worked untiringly over the last couple of days with the Dutch and Australian teams to first work out a safe access route – mind you this goes from Ukrainian territory into what they call ‘no man’s land’ and then into separatist held territory – so our team had to negotiate checkpoints all along this route. We’ll need to do that day-by-day. It’s a very dangerous situation. There’s a full-scale military conflict going on with very sophisticated weapons by both sides. We’re talking missiles and rockets and the like. So, they’ll need to negotiate that path every day. So we’re not taking unnecessary risks but we’ve got to remember; this is a war zone.
JOURNALIST Well, you are allowed; your police could bring arms to the site. The Ukrainians have green-lighted that but you won’t do so. Why?
JULIE BISHOP The agreement that was ratified by the Ukraine Rada today was the operating agreement, if you like; the conditions upon which we are able to work in Ukraine in these circumstances. It also includes a provision about bringing in armed personnel but we don’t believe that will be necessary, in fact we will not be taking arms onto the site because this is a police-led humanitarian mission. And we want our investigators and our experts to get on with the job of scouring the site for remains and pieces of the wreckage. But our main priority is to bring our people home.
JOURNALIST Madam Foreign Minister, it is still, it is still a war zone. You still have to ensure the security of your own people.
JULIE BISHOP You’re absolutely right Jim. And we’re putting our people in the hands of the Ukraine military for part of the trip and the separatists that have been negotiating with the OSCE for the rest of the trip and on the site. But we stress this is a humanitarian mission. Our police are unarmed. That was a condition of being allowed to get onto the crash site and our experts here have weighed the risks they…
JOURNALIST Was that a condition of the rebels?
JULIE BISHOP Yes, it was.
JOURNALIST Do you trust them? Have you talked with them? Do you believe that they will ultimately co-operate?
JULIE BISHOP We’re not dealing directly with the separatists. We do that via the OSCE. They’ve been on the ground for months. They’ve had 50 unarmed monitors on the ground since March and so we are relying on them. They’ve developed relationships with these separatist groups and there are a number of them. There’s not just one group. They’re all clearly Russian-backed.
JOURNALIST Your Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said of the Russian relationship that ‘our focus is not on sanctions for the moment’. I am just wondering, will sanctions make the job more difficult? If the West goes ahead with more sanctions against Moscow, your task, the task of finding out what happened to flight 17 becomes perhaps impossible?
JULIE BISHOP We imposed sanctions earlier in the year when the US and Europeans imposed sanctions. But the current round of sanctions which are being promoted by the European Union is a matter that we are not involving ourselves with at this stage. And so we can’t be drawn into the geopolitical situation at present until we complete our humanitarian mission and that’s a point our Prime Minister has been making. He’s not entering into the rights or wrongs of it at this point. What he’s trying to do is retrieve the bodies of the 38 Australian residents that were killed on that flight. We owe it to the families and we won’t rest until we’ve got their bodies home. Then we can consider the consequences of the investigation and the results of the investigation once they’re known.
JOURNALIST Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop I want to thank you very much for being with us.
JULIE BISHOP Thank you.
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