GRABOVE, Ukraine: The Netherlands yesterday scrapped plans to send an international armed mission to secure the crash site of Malaysian flight MH17, fearing a deployment risked being dragged into the conflict in east Ukraine.
Dutch authorities leading the probe into the downing of the passenger airliner carrying 298 people had along with Australia planned to send armed officers, but Prime Minister Mark Rutte said this is no longer viable.
“Getting the military upper hand for an international mission in this area is according to our conclusion not realistic,” Rutte told journalists in The Hague, noting the presence of heavily armed separatists and the proximity of the border with Russia -- accused of backing the rebels.
“We concluded with our international partners that there’s a real risk of such an international military mission becoming directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine,” Rutte said.
Even an unarmed team of Dutch and Australian officers was forced to drop their plans to visit the site Sunday as heavy bombardments rocked towns close to the site, where some remains of the 298 victims from the plane still lie decomposing under the summer sun.
A small reconnaisance team travelled to assess the situation, but “stopped out of security concern” after seeing heavy weapons, said Alexander Hug, deputy chief monitor of the European security body OSCE’s special mission in Ukraine.
“We saw for ourselves mortar artillery. This confirmed our decision not to go,” he told reporters in the insurgent stronghold Donetsk, the biggest city in the region.
An AFP photographer heard artillery bombardments just a kilometre (half a mile) from the rebel-held town of Grabove, next to the crash site, and saw black smoke billowing into the sky.
Terrified local residents were fleeing and checkpoints controlled by separatist fighters were abandoned.
Amid the fierce fighting that claimed 13 lives yesterday including those of two children, Washington released satellite images to bolster its claim that Russian artillery has fired across the border into Ukraine, targeting government forces in support of separatists.
Earlier, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had said 49 officers from the Netherlands and Australia -- which together lost some 221 citizens in the crash -- were due at the scene yesterday and that there would be “considerably more on site in coming days”.
That came after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he had reached an agreement with the pro-Russian insurgents controlling the site to allow the police deployment and that Malaysia would send 68 officers on Wednesday.