SYDNEY – Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Wednesday it was possible that many bodies from the MH17 crash were still lying in the open in Ukraine, as remains were recovered from a morgue train.
All 298 people onboard the Malaysia Airlines jet, including 28 Australian nationals and nine residents, were killed after the aircraft was apparently shot down over eastern Ukraine last week. "It's quite possible that many bodies are still out there, in the open in the European summer, subject to interference, and subject to the ravages of heat and animals," Abbott told a press conference.
The remains of victims were taken by train to the government-held Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Tuesday, after rebels controlling the crash site finally released them and the plane's black boxes under intense international pressure. Dutch experts have said that they were only sure 200 bodies had been recovered so far -- well short of accounting for all those onboard.
"Based on early inspection of the carriages in Kharkiv, we just don't know how many bodies we have," Abbott told reporters in Canberra. The Australian leader called for a full recovery search of the vast crash site, saying such an operation was necessary if all of the bodies are to be recovered. He added that he had "serious concerns" about the recovery of the victims' bodies.
"It has been up until now quite unprofessional," he said. "As long as it's possible that there are any Australian remains out there, we owe it to the families to do our utmost to recover them." Abbott, whose government was behind a UN Security Council resolution that Monday unanimously demanded full access to the site, has been highly critical of efforts to secure the crash zone.
He said his special envoy in eastern Ukraine, retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, told him the crash site needed to be secured and that a large team was required to "identify anything that might have been missed up to now". "Because it's entirely possible in his view that there could be further human remains or further significant wreckage in the area," Abbott said, adding that the debris zone was estimated to cover about 50 square kilometres (19.3 square miles).
"It might be the partial remains of a loved one. It might be a small but critical piece of the aircraft or the missile that is the key to the investigation." Pro-Russian separatist and prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Borodai has said his rebels "will order a ceasefire in an area of 10 kilometres around" the site of the disaster.
Abbott's comments came as US intelligence officials said that the Malaysian flight may have been shot down by mistake by ill-trained pro-Russian separatists, while dismissing Moscow's accounts of the incident as propaganda. Earlier, Abbott said Australian families affected by the tragedy would be offered the opportunity to go to the Netherlands -- where the remains will be identified -- to travel home with the bodies.
"By its very nature, it may take some weeks before we can honour the dead by returning them to those they loved and those that loved them. But we will bring them home," Abbott said in a statement.