Dutch-led group of 49 investigators that will attempt to recover bodies and examine site in eastern Ukraine will be unarmed.
Paul Farrell in Canberra
A Woman takes a photograph of wreckage at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
Dutch and Australian investigators will get greater access to the site of the MH17 crash in eastern Ukraine under the terms of a new deal, the Australian prime minister has said.
The unarmed Dutch-led group would have 49 personnel on site on Sunday, 11 of which would be Australian, Tony Abbott said. The team would be allowed to enter the site during the day to recover remains and examine the site, but would not be permitted to stay overnight. Abbott anticipated the numbers would grow substantially in the coming days.
Speaking to reporters in Canberra on Sunday, Abbott said the agreement followed discussions in Donetsk overnight led by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
Abbott said: “Today I announce that the Australian federal police will be deployed to the site as part of an unarmed, Dutch-led international humanitarian mission.
“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 effectively as possible.”
The decision to send in only unarmed officers has removed a substantial hurdle for Dutch and Australian authorities, as it will no longer need ratification from the Ukrainian parliament, according to Abbott.
The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, had earlier negotiated with the Ukrainian government to allow unarmed Australian officers to access the site. But the proposal for them to be accompanied by armed officers threatened to keep them off the site for days while they waited for Ukrainian parliamentary approval.
Abbott said the objective of the mission was “to get in, to get cracking, to get out”, and stressed it was a humanitarian, police-led operation. Some Australian defence force personnel have also been sent to Europe to back up the police, but would not be sent to the site.
“This is a risky mission … but all the professional advice that I have is that the safest way to conduct it is unarmed, as part of a police-led humanitarian mission,” he said.
“What needs to happen on the site is plainly that a professional team needs to be deployed to recover remains, assisting where possible with investigation and as far as possible to remove wreckage.”
There are 170 Australian police officers standing by in Ukraine, with 20 more in the Netherlands.
The Australian federal police commissioner, Tony Negus, said the mission would allow Dutch and Australian forces to undertake forensic tests at the site.
“The first priority is to locate the remains of any victims still on the site. We will also conduct a forensic examination of the site, and as you well know and as 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 would be,” he said.
Australian and Dutch officials have been negotiating for days to allow officers from both countries to gain access to the site of the crash in Ukraine.