Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site remains unsecured due to fighting

Wreckage debris and mementos left by local residents are seen at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 near the village Grabovo, Ukraine, July 26, 2014.

Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

DONETSK, Ukraine - Unarmed Australian police will be sent to the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash site in rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine as part of a Dutch-led police force to secure the area and help recover victims' remains, Australia's prime minister said Sunday.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that by using unarmed police, Ukraine's Parliament will not need to ratify the deployment as it would if the security force were to be armed.

"This is a risky mission. There's no doubt about that," Abbott told reporters. "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.

But hours later, plans to send Australian police in on Monday were postponed due to reports of fighting in the area of the crash site.

Alexander Hug, the deputy head of a monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said it would be too dangerous for the unarmed mission to travel to the area from its current location in the rebel-held city of Donetsk. It was not immediately clear where precisely clashes had broken out.


An elderly resident of the eastern Ukrainian city of Lysychansk walks past Ukrainian service men patroling the outskirts of the city on July 26, 2014. Ukrainian troops have retaken the strategically-important city of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine, as they press on with their offensive to stamp out a pro-Russian rebellion.


Abbott's spokeswoman Jane McMillan confirmed that the Australian police deployment had been postponed due to fighting. She did not say when it was expected to proceed.

Earlier, Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus had said that 11 Australian police would initially be sent Monday into the debris field, which covers 50 square kilometers (20 square miles).

Negus said the Dutch police also would be unarmed. He did not say how many Dutch police would be sent.

The pro-Russia separatists have been blamed for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with a surface-to-air missile on July 17, killing all 298 people aboard.

Negus said assessments would soon be made on how many police are needed to secure the crash site. There currently are 170 Australian Federal Police personnel in Ukraine waiting to be deployed, he said.

The first priority of the international police force is to enable searchers to recover human remains, Abbott said. But searchers will also conduct a forensic examination of the area in the hope that those responsible for shooting down the Boeing 777 can be brought to justice.

Abbott said he expected police would only spend two or three weeks at the crash site.

"This is a volatile situation," he said. "This is contested ground and we don't want to be there any longer than is absolutely necessary."

Unreleased data from a black box retrieved from the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine show findings consistent with the plane's fuselage being hit multiple times by shrapnel from a missile explosion.

"It did what it was designed to do, bring down airplanes," a European air safety official told CBS News.

The official described the finding as "massive explosive decompression."

If the full teams of aviation crash experts and security personnel ever do arrive at the crash site in Grabovo, it will be a relief to the handful who are already there.

The dedicated but small group of Dutch, Australian and Malaysian investigators has been on the crash site for the past few days and has learned that there's a lot more work to be done to find hard evidence of the cause of the crash.

They are also still making more grisly discoveries.

"Personal belongings, passports, ID cards, credit cards, things like that," Michael Borkiurkiw of the OSCE said, "and the Dutch have just documented some very small human remains over there in that field as well."

Around a hundred passengers are still unaccounted for.