Securing MH17 site a ‘dangerous tightrope act,’ experts warn

File picture shows armed pro-Russian separatists standing guard at a crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region July 20, 2014. — Reuters pic
File picture shows armed pro-Russian separatists standing guard at a crash site of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, near the village of Hrabove, Donetsk region July 20, 2014. — Reuters pic

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THE HAGUE, July 25 — Sending Western forces to secure the MH17 crash site in rebel-held Ukraine and protect investigators will be a perilous balancing act involving unpredictable separatists and Russian pride.

“It’s going to be a dangerous tightrope act,” defence analyst Justin Bronk told AFP, referring to a Dutch and Australian push to put troops on the ground where the Malaysia passenger jet was shot down on July 17.

Both countries, whose citizens accounted for three-quarters of the 298 who were on board, say they have readied police officers to deploy and were seeking the legal mandate to do so.

“They want to use as few lightly equipped troops as possible to avoid provoking the Russians,” said Bronk, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“Bear in mind, part of the reason that this whole conflict started is over Russia’s view that the West, in the guise of both NATO and the EU, are coming ever further eastwards,” he said.

“At the same time, to ensure their protection they will want to send them with quite heavy equipment, given the equipment both sides are firing at each other in the region.”

US experts believe the Malaysia Airlines jet was mistakenly shot down by the pro-Russian separatists with a sophisticated surface-to-air missile provided by Russia.

International investigators from eight countries, including Russia, have yet to gain access to the vast crash site amid security concerns.

No extraction capacity

“If the situation suddenly deteriorates, we have no extraction capacity,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, which lost 193 people in the disaster, told parliament today.

“We have no soldiers on the ground.”

The UN Security Council, including Russia, on Monday passed a resolution backing an independent investigation of the disaster, and the Netherlands and Australia are reportedly drafting a new resolution to send an armed force to secure the crash site.

Australia, which had 28 citizens on board, is sending around 200 police and an unspecified number of troops “on a humanitarian mission” to secure the crash site, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced today.

The Netherlands is sending 40 unarmed military police today to help remove remaining bodies. The army today withdrew communications on Twitter and Facebook that it was cancelling leave and mobilising troops.

“If we go over there with a big military presence, the situation could become more unstable than stable,” Rutte said.

Despite a fragile ceasefire in the immediate vicinity, fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces is actually intensifying in the broader region beyond the crash zone.

And experts say debris from the plane’s explosion, at 10,000 metres (33,000 feet), is likely scattered over a vast area of perhaps 100 square kilometres (around 40 square miles)

“There may be rebels over there who have every interest in light not being shed on the facts,” Ko Colijn, director and defence expert at the Netherlands’ Clingendael Institute, told AFP.

Small-scale war

In order to properly secure the crash site, thousands of troops would have to be deployed, says military historian Christ Klep of the University of Amsterdam.

“You need radar, reconnaissance, commandos, anti-tank weapons, attack helicopters... Well, that’s starting to look like a small-scale war,” Klep told Dutch broadcaster NOS.

He also said that world powers will seek to make good on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s promises to help with the investigation.

“This may appear odd but I think they will try to get Russia involved as much as possible in any mission. It would be a kind of guarantee,” said Colijn.

“Russia’s role is crucial,” agreed Christophe Paulussen, international law expert at the Asser Institute in The Hague.

“If Russia does indeed have influence over the separatists, a UN Security Council resolution supported by Russia would apparently be respected by the separatists,” he told AFP.

“But you shouldn’t forget that the separatists are themselves divided.”

“The biggest danger is the unpredictability of the different groups,” former Dutch military chief of staff Dick Berlijn told state broadcaster NOS.

“They are not a cohesive whole,” said Bronk. “They have different leaderships, they have, potentially, different views and agendas.”

“It is almost impossible to guarantee that a mission like this one will not come under fire at some point.” — AFP

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