Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says Australia is still determined to send unarmed police to the MH17 crash site despite Ukrainian forces mounting a fresh offensive in the rebel-controlled area.
Eleven Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers on Sunday abandoned a planned site visit with a 38-strong Dutch team due to heavy shelling in eastern Ukraine.
“I would have rathered the mission went ahead today but the fighting had intensified so the correct decision was taken not to go in,” Ms Bishop told AAP in Amsterdam.
“It sets us back a day but we are determined to fulfil the promise that we made that we would bring our people (victims) home.”
Ms Bishop was speaking at Schiphol airport before flying to Kiev with her Dutch counterpart Frans Timmermans.
Asked if she was concerned about Ukraine’s military action, Ms Bishop said: “We always knew there was a conflict between the Ukrainian military and the separatists.”
“We had hoped that there would be an exclusion zone,” she said.
“But it appears that fighting has in fact taken place within the exclusion and around Donetsk today. It’s a very fluid situation.”
The Australian and Dutch team remains in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk and on Monday will again attempt to travel to the crash site 60km away.
Canberra is relying on the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to negotiate access with the separatists.
Ms Bishop spoke with OSCE chairman and Swiss president Didier Burkhalter on Sunday.
Australia’s special envoy to Ukraine, retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, is in touch with senior Ukrainian officials in Kiev.
The foreign minister said whether AFP officers travelled to the site was “a day by day proposition”.
The contingent on the ground provides advice which is then considered by the national security committee.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy but we are being very careful to balance the fact of the conflict with our need to get onto the site to carry out this humanitarian task of recovering bodies and remains,” Ms Bishop said.
Canberra believes Sunday’s fighting underlines the need for the Ukrainian parliament to ratify a deal that would allow Australia to send in a small number of armed police and soldiers.
The foreign minister has signed an in-principal agreement with her Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Klimkin.
Getting it finalised, however, has been complicated by the collapse of the ruling coalition and the resignation of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
“We will work very hard to have it ratified as soon as possible,” Ms Bishop said on Sunday.
“(But) there may be a number of reasons why, logistically, the parliament can’t be returned earlier (than Thursday as is currently scheduled).”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Sunday said an international military mission to secure the MH17 crash site was “unrealistic”.
“We concluded with our international partners that there’s a real risk of such an international military mission becoming directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine,” Mr Rutte told reporters in The Hague.
The conflict “would then acquire an international dimension that would lead to further escalation”.
There are presently 170 unarmed AFP officers in Ukraine in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kiev.