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Ukraine

International mission to secure MH17 site fraught with risks

Australia and the Netherlands have decided against deploying troops to secure the MH17 crash site in Ukraine, opting instead to send an unarmed police team. But access to the site is difficult in an active war zone.

Dutch and Australian police called off an attempt to reach the wreckage of MH17 on Monday due to reports of explosions in the region, the second time they have been forced to turn back due to clashes near the site of the crash.

Initially, the Netherlands and Australia had contemplated sending an armed mission to secure the wreckage of the Malaysian airliner and retrieve human remains that have not yet been recovered. But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called off the idea of an armed mission after a ceasefire negotiated with the rebels around the crash site fell through.

"We had the intention to send a unit of the air mobile brigade which was very lightly armed, so it's not a real unit which would provoke hostilities," Kees Homan, a retired major general with the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps, told DW.

"But as the fighting continued in the area, our prime minister then took the decision that a military unit for protection of the investigators was not a real option," said Homan, who now works with the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

Prime Minister Rutte had concluded that "there's a real risk of such an international military mission becoming directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine."

Unarmed police mission

A car burning by the side of the road. (Photo: ITAR-TASS/ Valery Matytsin)

Fighting in eastern Ukraine has prevented the police mission from reaching the crash site

Instead, the Dutch and the Australians have opted to send a team of 49 unarmed police officers to the crash site. According to Xenia Avezov, an expert on peace operations, "an unarmed mission sends the message that you're not part of the conflict."

"This is a war zone, so obviously there are risks," Avezov, with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told DW. "We have seen in the past with OSCE monitors in the region that there are risks of abduction."

She also said that the rebels did demonstrate some level of restraint by returning the monitors they had taken.

But according to Homan, "as long as the fighting is going on, it's no real option to send in the police."

Fighting nears crash site

Reports have indicated that Ukrainian troops have come within 15 kilometers (10 miles) of the downed Boeing 777. Government forces have reportedly advanced into Shakhtarsk and Torez, the latter being the town where the bodies of the victims were stored before making the journey back to Holland.

"All our troops are aiming to get there and liberate this territory so that we can guarantee that international experts can carry out a 100 percent investigation of the site and get all the proof needed to deduce the real reason for this tragedy," said Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine's Security Council.

But Homan doesn't believe that Kyiv's main priority is to secure the crash site.

"The Ukrainian government has said that they are now fighting with the rebels to clear the whole area for investigators," Homan said. "But I think the real goal of the Ukrainian government is to defeat the separatists - I think that is their main priority."

One of the biggest problems, according to Avezov, is that it's difficult to control the combatants on the ground.

"While Russia and Ukraine may agree to secure the site, in reality they don't have that level of control over everybody," she said. "The relationship of Putin with the rebels, it's not so clear cut that he just tells them what he wants, what he expects, and they follow."

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