An armed pro-Russian separatist guards a crash site of the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 near the village of Hrabove (Grabovo), Donetsk region July 24, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev (UKRAINE - Tags: TRANSPORT DISASTER) - RTR400EF Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters
Australia is close to finalizing a deal with Ukraine to send police and a small number of troops to secure the Malaysian plane crash site as part of a multinational team, the Australian prime minister said Friday.
- LIVE BLOG | On mobile? Follow the story here
- PHOTOS | Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash site images
- IN DEPTH | Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 FAQ: Surface-to-air missiles
Australia has 90 federal police officers in Europe ready to be deployed to the site in eastern Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed last week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said. Some of the officers could be armed, and would be accompanied by members of Australia's defence force, he said.
Armed pro-Russian separatists control the area and have hampered investigators' attempts to access the site.
Abbott stressed that the team, which would include countries that lost citizens in the disaster, would not be going in as part of a military mission.
"This is a humanitarian mission ... with a clear and simple objective: to bring them home," Abbott told reporters in Canberra, the nation's capital. "Others can engage in the politics of Eastern Europe. All we want to do is to claim our dead and to bring them home."
All 298 people aboard the plane were killed when it was shot down on July 17, likely by a missile from territory held by pro-Russian rebels. Thirty-seven Australian citizens and residents were on board.
The urgency to secure the area grew after three Australian officials traveled to the crash site on Thursday and found more wreckage and human remains, Abbott said.
"With these remains exposed to the ravages of heat and animals and to the continuing possibility of human interference, it's more important than ever that the site be properly secured," Abbott said. "Our objective is the remains can be recovered, that the investigation can go ahead and that justice can be done."
Another 100 Australian police officers will be deployed to Europe in the next 24 hours, Abbott said.
The international police team would be tasked with ensuring a thorough search of the site so all remains are recovered and sent to the Netherlands for identification. The mission would be complete within a few weeks of arriving, Abbott said.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop presented an Australia-sponsored resolution to the U.N. Security Council that passed unanimously on Monday demanding that rebels cooperate with an independent investigation and allow all remaining bodies to be recovered.
Ukrainian soldiers come under fire
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army claimed that soldiers came under artillery fire from the Russian side of the border overnight and were attacked by rebels in several other places in the restive east.
Ukrainian forces are trying to close in on the rebels, cutting them off from the border with Russia which Kyiv believes is the source of arms and reinforcement. Moscow has vehemently denied a role in the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and government troops which has left more than 400 people dead and displaced tens of thousands.
In a statement on Friday, the headquarters of the government's military operation in the east listed at least seven locations where rebels attacked Ukrainian troops. They also claimed that attacks on two locations including a border crossing were supported by artillery fire from Russia.
Russia said Ukrainian also fired into its territory. Around 40 mortar shells fired by Ukrainian forces fell in Russia’s Rostov province near the Ukrainian border, a Russian official told the state Ria Novosti news agency.
Late on Thursday, Ukrainian troops entered the town of Lysychansk, which has been in rebel hands for several months, the military press office said. Rebels on Friday morning admitted in comments carried by Interfax that they had to flee the town which is 70 kilometres northwest of the regional capital Luhansk.