MH17: Australia and Netherlands wait on Kiev to ratify police missions

Push to allow international police teams into wreckage site waits for Ukrainian parliament to give the green light, despite government having no control over the area

Dutch and Australian authorities are closing in on a deal to take major police contingents to the site of the MH17 crash in eastern Ukraine, but the plans are fraught with difficulty and potential risk.

A convoy of about 40 unarmed Dutch police are on their way to the crash site, and Australia has more than 200 police and investigators standing by. Both Dutch and Australians are unwilling to negotiate directly with the rebels who control the area and are waiting for the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev to agree to the missions.

Australia's foreign minister, Julie Bishop, is in Ukraine and last Friday signed a deal with her Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Klimkin, to allow access to the site. But the Ukrainian parliament needs to ratify the deal, and further delays are likely after the resignation of prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk last week.

"We have to ratify the agreement that was signed for the police mission to enter Ukraine and to provide for security of experts that will be working on that territory," said acting prime minister Volodymyr Groysman.

Kiev, however, has no control over the area of the crash site, which adds a further layer of complication.

The Observer understands that negotiations are being held by a contact group via video link and involve representatives of Kiev, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the rebels, as well as the Russian ambassador to Ukraine.

Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and his Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte plan to meet next week to discuss access to the site. A Malaysian delegation negotiated directly with the rebels in Donetsk in order to secure the handover of the plane's two black box recorders. He said the rebels also agreed to give investigators full access to the site. It is not known how the rebel fighters will react to police missions arriving at the site, however. An adviser to the rebel prime minister Alexander Borodai did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday.

A spokesperson for the OSCE monitoring mission in Donetsk said rebel fighters had indicated they would be comfortable with an international mission of about 25-30 people, but would find a larger group harder to protect. As the Dutch police would be unarmed, the understanding is that they would be protected by rebel gunmen.

A contingency plan being worked on in the Netherlands would put a group of armed special forces troops on standby to travel to the region if anything went wrong. A source told Dutch paper De Telegraaf that if they did enter east Ukraine, they might also consider a mission to seize the separatists' main commander, Igor Strelkov.

Although it is not believed that this is a serious plan, the Russian news agency Life News was reporting it as its top story on Saturday, in a sign of how delicate an operation this is. It is easy to imagine things spiralling out of control if, for example, the Dutch delegation were to be caught up in fighting in the area.

Both the Ukrainian government and the rebels have declared ceasefires in the area of the crash site, but fighting continues close by and clashes on the outskirts of the regional capital, Donetsk, are intensifying. Locals fear the Ukrainians may be preparing a major onslaught to take back the city.

Most shops and restaurants in the city have closed and heavy shelling is audible from the centre at night. There have been a number of civilian casualties, and Human Rights Watch says there is "strong evidence" the Ukrainian army has used Grad rockets on civilian areas.


Shaun Walker in Donetsk

The GuardianTramp

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