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Australia gets approval to send armed officers to MH17 recovery team

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AUSTRALIA has won approval to send elite armed officers to protect investigative teams in their efforts to scour the Malaysia Airlines crash site for human remains after the recalled Ukrainian parliament passed special legislation.

Announcing that cadaver sniffer dogs had also been permitted to join the recovery mission, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop tweeted from Kiev: “Ukraine Rada votes MH17 Netherlands-Australia investigation 324 in favour. Thank you Ukraine.”

It comes amid wire reports that Ukraine’s military has announced a day-long ceasefire in its assault on pro-Russian rebels near the crash site, after the United Nations issued a plea to let investigators to the area where wreckage and bodies from MH17 still lie unrecovered.

However, in the rebel-held city of Donetsk the truce does not appear to have kicked in, with loud bombing being heard from the city outskirts and intense fighting continuing in the area of the crash.

A small reconnaissance team of international observers, including two Australians, made it close to the site after departing from Donetsk early in the Ukraine morning, but the Australian Federal Police said told News Corp Australia that despite media reports, they had not made it to the crash site.

The area is now the scene of several pitched battles between Ukrainian forces and separatists, whom Ms Bishop believes are being reinforced by heavy armaments and veteran fighters crossing from Russia and surrounding republics.

“My great fear is Russia is actively undermining this process,” Ms Bishop said from Kiev.

The Ukraine has said it did not intend to bomb civilian areas of Donetsk but missiles have been incoming, many of them fired in wildly inaccurate barrages that international observers says are being fired from truck-mounted Grad missile systems and cannons.

The outskirts of Donetsk, where the foreign teams are headquartered, were last night rocked by sustained barrages, believed to have been fired inwards by Ukrainian troops who have ringed the city.

Today, it appeared that separatists are firing back out of the city.

Those people who have not fled the south-west part of the city slept on floors and prayed. “I did not sleep,” said a contact named Anton, a shop owner who described the bombing as very close to his home.

Investigators have been unable to secure the crash area as their urgent mission to retrieve the remains of up to 80 people falls foul of bitter internal war that escalated after the plane came down on July 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew.

The resolution to allow elite Australian Federal Police officers to carry arms on sorties to the site is to protect and if necessary extract investigators if they are caught in crossfire.

As Prime Minister Tony Abbott declared August 7 a national day of mourning for the 38 Australian citizens and residents on the plane, Operation Bring Them Home still remains fraught.

Claims by Ukrainian military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko that separatists had placed landmines on road approaches to the crash site are not necessarily seen as credible, but it has managed to further complicate the issue.

Australia has said it will not risk its citizens’ lives.

There will be a full assessment by the team from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, which is working with the separatists on accessing the site, whether there is any truth to Colonel Lysenko’s claim that getting to the site was now “impossible” because of landmines.

Tony Abbott, asked about Moscow’s approach to the investigation, said: “I think Russia is pursuing its own interests but I suspect it is at least partly in Russia’s interest at this time to ensure that our police mission successfully goes ahead.”

And despite the frustrations with Russia, The Prime Minister wants President Vladimir Putin to attend the leaders’ summit in Brisbane later this year.

“I would like to be in a position for him to continue to attend,’’ he told Fairfax Radio. “There will no doubt be a lot of water flow under the bridge between now and November.’’

Further complicating the MH17 mission are Ukrainian claims that separatists have laid landmines on the routes to the crash zone.

“They have brought a large number of heavy artillery there and mined approaches to this area,’’ Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said, although he provided no evidence.

“This makes impossible the work of international experts trying to start work to establish the reasons behind the Boeing 777 crash.’’

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on Kiev and pro-Russian rebels to immediately stop fighting, to allow investigators to reach the crash site.

“The families of this horrific tragedy deserve closure and the world demands answers; international teams must be allowed to conduct their work,’’ Mr Ban said in a statement.

Saying he was “deeply disturbed’’ by the developments, Mr Ban called “on all parties to immediately halt hostilities in the proximity of the crash site so as to allow the international teams unimpeded access to the site’’.

The Australian government insists its team not be placed at any risk in trying to reach the crash site. This may mean the area will need to be tested for landmines and cleared if any are found.

Alexander Hug, deputy chief of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, which is attempting to negotiate access to the site, said: “If there was any indication of landmines all security necessary would be implemented.’’.

The presence of landmines would cause significant delays in clearing the area, located east of the separatist-held city of Donetsk, and already beset by heavy fighting that has made it too dangerous for the recovery mission to get to the 50sq km crash zone.

Michael Bociurkiw, from the OSCE, said while heavy armaments had been introduced to the war in recent weeks, there had so far been no evidence of the deployment of landmines.

While investigators will keep trying, Dutch police concede it’s unlikely they will be able to reach the crash site in the “immediate future’’.

“Unfortunately, we don’t expect the security situation to improve enough over the next few days,’’ said the head of the Dutch recovery mission in Ukraine, Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg.

“This makes it less likely that we will reach the crash site in the immediate future. There is still too much fighting in the area,’’ he said.

He also said 68 Malaysian experts and police officers were expected in Kiev today to join the group.

In another development, Ukraine’s parliament may deal tonight with a resolution to allow Australian police to carry arms to protect MH17 investigators.

The joint team is also determined to retrieve a large pile of victims’ belongings from a morgue in the rebel-stronghold of Donetsk, where it’s believed some of the bodies had been at one point.

The belongings will be sent to the Netherlands, where body identification is taking place.

The plane, with 298 people on board, came down on July 17 in an area of east Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists are battling government forces.

Moscow has dismissed claims it was responsible for supplying the missile that downed the Malaysia Airlines flight.

The Netherlands, which is leading the crash probe and body identification, lost 193 citizens on the flight. Thirty-eight were from Australia.

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