The Dutch and Australian governments are exploring a plan to send an armed multinational protection force to a pro-separatist enclave in eastern Ukraine to secure the site where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed after being shot down by a missile, killing all 298 people on board, according to U.N.-based diplomats and officials.
The two countries suffered the greatest casualties in the July 17 tragedy, with 193 Dutch and 37 Australian citizens and residents killed in the downing of the flight, which was en route to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam.
No one has claimed responsibility for the strike, which American officials suspect was carried out by pro-Russian separatists who mistook the commercial jet for a Ukrainian military transport plane and used a sophisticated Russian SA-11 missile to bring it down. A powerful Ukrainian commander told Reuters Wednesday that Ukrainian separatists had obtained the Buk mobile missile launcher that American intelligence officials believe was used to fire the missile.
American intelligence officials told reporters in Washington this week that they were still unable to directly link Moscow to the incident.
A shocked and angry Netherlands observed a national day of mourning on Wednesday and grimly welcomed the return of the first shipments of human remains from a holding station in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where more than 200 bodies have been stored in refrigerated train cars.
Reports that armed separatists compromised the integrity of the crash site, looted the plane, tampered with evidence, and limited international inspectors’ access have fueled Dutch calls for NATO to deploy an international force to Ukraine to secure the site.
"Enough is enough — intervene!" the Netherlands’ largest newspaper, De Telegraaf, said. Although separatists have increased access for inspectors and released most of the bodies, pressure at home on the Dutch government has not subsided.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has declined to ask NATO to intervene. But he secured an agreement in a telephone conversation Tuesday with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to dispatch an international "joint-protection force" to the site, which is located near the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, according to a U.N.-based diplomat familiar with the conversation.
The Dutch can legally send troops in at Ukraine’s request but are reluctant to accept such an invitation without first securing broader international support, particularly from Russia, because the Ukrainian government doesn’t control the site. It remains unclear whether that is possible.
Australia, which holds a temporary seat on the U.N. Security Council and is considering participating in such a force, is exploring how to win the 15-nation council’s backing — either through a resolution or a statement, the diplomat said. Both governments have approached Moscow to see if it has any objection to the temporary deployment of a Dutch-led force, according to the source. The Australian and Dutch governments declined to discuss the matter, while the Russian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.
The initiative is still in the preliminary stages and Australia has not briefed the full council on its plans, according to council diplomats. It is unclear how large a force is needed and whether the Russian government will approve it.
"It seems the Dutch have mentioned the idea but it hasn’t gone much further than that," said a council diplomat. "Whether or not it’s practical or what it would look like remains to be seen."
Another council diplomat said: "The Russians are quite unpredictable. I see difficulties with the Russians agreeing to something like this without having Russian troops on the ground."
A diplomat from another government, however, said that Russia may be more amenable.
A U.N. official said it may be too late to secure the site properly, given that six days have lapsed. The Dutch are looking into a force "that could keep the site clear and safe so the investigation isn’t tampered with," the official said. "But it may be too late for that, after all."
The disclosure comes two days after the U.N. Security Council on Monday adopted a resolution calling for an independent international investigation into the crash. Ukrainian authorities have asked the Netherlands to lead the team, which will include experts from several foreign governments and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
The resolution demands that all armed groups grant "full and unrestricted access" to the site but has no explicit provision authorizing the deployment of a multinational force. It does call on the U.N. secretary-general to "identify possible options for United Nations support to the investigation."
On Wednesday, Dutch and Australian military transport planes delivered some victims’ remains to Eindhoven Air Base, where they were met by members of the Dutch royal family, Rutte, and grieving relatives. The bodies will be transferred to a military base in Hilversum, where they will be identified, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe claims that rebel fighters restricted investigators’ access for days after the crash, permitting Dutch and OSCE teams adequate access for only three days. "In the Donetsk region, at the main incident site of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 flight crash scene, the SMM [the OSCE special monitoring mission] observed that passengers’ belongings had been removed," alleged an OSCE statement issued Tuesday. "There was no security perimeter. At another site, where the cockpit had fallen, the SMM noted that debris had been cut and moved."
Netherlands Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told the Security Council on Monday: "The last couple of days we have received very disturbing reports of bodies being moved about and looted for their possessions…. To my dying day I will not understand that it took so much time for the rescue workers to be allowed to do their difficult jobs and that human remains should be used in a political game. I hope the world will not have to witness this again, any time in the future."