ABC’s Lateline, Kyiv - interview with Emma Alberici

  • Transcript, E&OE

JOURNALIST Joining us now from Kyiv is the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

JULIE BISHOP Good evening.

JOURNALIST What sort of assurances have you been given by the Ukrainian Government about the safety of Australian police at the crash site?

JULIE BISHOP About an hour and a half ago, our advance party of two Dutch and two Australian investigators were able to reach the site by a different route from those we'd tried previously and this was done in conjunction with the Ukrainian Government and with the separatists. So we were able to move from our base, through Ukrainian territory then into No-Man's Land as it's called, and then through separatist territory to reach the crash site. So it's required a great deal of coordination and negotiation with both sides, both the Ukrainian Government and the separatists and we hope that we've now established a pattern through this alternative route that was devised between our experts and our operations teams - that's the Dutch and Australian and Ukrainian Government and the OSCE, the Organization of Security Cooperation in Europe. So all of the parties came together to enable our advance party to get on site so we are hopeful that that will continue until our work is done.

JOURNALIST Has Australia had specific assurances from the separatists that no harm will come to Australians on the site?

JULIE BISHOP We negotiate with the separatists through the OSCE. They are experienced, they have built up a relationship with the separatists over a number of months and so we rely on them to negotiate, so we've had the assurances via OSCE. They are a very experienced and competent organisation and they are very conservative in terms of security issues. So we put our faith in OSCE, and also the

Ukrainian Government who have done so much over the last week to ensure that we can reach the crash site and carry out our humanitarian mission.

JOURNALIST The Ukrainian Government has voted to allow Australian and Dutch investigators to carry arms, so will they be bearing weapons when they go to the site?

JULIE BISHOP Absolutely not. We have no intention of taking arms on to the site. It is a humanitarian police-led mission and both the Dutch teams and the Australian teams will be unarmed. The agreements that were ratified in the Ukrainian Rada today were much broader than just about arms. It was the condition upon which we base our presence here. So, for example, we can bring in our sniffer dogs, we are subjected to Ukrainian law, we can bring specific equipment on to the site but it's more of an operating agreement, how we can operate according to Ukrainian law and what we must be subjected to in terms of conditions and requirements.

JOURNALIST Are you entirely sure it's a safe mission for Australian police given reports from Ukrainian security officials that separatist groups may have planted land mines around the crash site?

JULIE BISHOP It is an extremely dangerous mission. We are in it middle of a war zone. There is fighting going on. Our team has reported they can hear shelling from the site so they are in the middle of a military conflict that has been raging for months, so it's an exceedingly dangerous mission but we are determined not to take unacceptable risks. We are negotiating every step of the way with the Ukraine Government and with the separatists and we are doing this day by day. This the fifth day we've tried to reach the site and the good news is we are now there but we now must begin the task, our teams must now begin the task, of assessing the site and then scoping out the work that has to be done. Tomorrow we hope to begin retrieving the bodies that we know are on the site and the belongings and gathering the evidence that will be required for the investigation and I really do hope that everyone in Australia can spare a thought for our police team. They have a very challenging task ahead of them to be investigating a crash site that is now two weeks old.

JOURNALIST Well, I was about to ask you, realistically, what value to the investigation will be retrieved given the time that's now elapsed and the contamination of so many people trampling over that site?

JULIE BISHOP We understand that there are still significant pieces of the aircraft on the site. We hope to be able to remove that wreckage and that will show evidence of what brought the plane down. We also understand that there are remains of a number of people still on the site and there are still belongings, personal effects, and we know how important personal belongings will be to the families and the next of kin so we're determined to collect those, to bring them home as well. Our most important mission, though, is to find the remains of any body that remains on site and transfer it to the Netherlands for body identification as soon as possible.

JOURNALIST How much of the blame do you slate back to Ukraine for the critical days that have been lost in this investigation where police should have been doing their important work but instead were frustrated by Ukrainian military trying to take over Donetsk?

JULIE BISHOP This is a military conflict where each side pushes for an advantage in terms of holding territory, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. So we have been working very closely with the Ukrainian Government to find an alternative route to get to the crash site that would avoid the most intense fighting and the Deputy Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, have been spending hours each day, up to five, six hours each day with our teams, with our experts, our logistical, operational people to work out how we can get to the crash site in the middle of the most intense fighting in a war zone where they are using heavy weapons and artillery and missiles. Both sides are sophisticated armies. The Ukraine military is a sophisticated defence force but the separatists - and there are many of them, many different groups - have exceedingly sophisticated high-level military equipment.

JOURNALIST Military equipment coming from Russia?

JULIE BISHOP That's our understanding. Where else would these separatists

get this kind of equipment? Surface-to-air missiles - the very most sophisticated equipment that military armies can buy.

JOURNALIST Do you expect Russia to withdraw that support after the new level of sanctions which have been imposed this week by the US and Europe?

JULIE BISHOP Well it depends which version of the events Russia is putting out at any one time. I recall some 14 days ago when I first spoke to the Russian ambassador, he denied that Russia had any involvement in any way and said that because this happened in Ukrainian air space Russia had nothing to do with it. So the story's a little different now. I think it's quite evident who has been backing the separatists, where they're getting the equipment from. There are many professional-looking soldiers on the sites now. These are not just a bunch of rebels, these are very professional foreign fighters who are taking up the separatist cause.

JOURNALIST Before we go, Minister I know your focus has been very much on the MH17 tragedy but I wanted to ask you briefly about something closer to home. Today at an inquiry into children in detention, we heard from psychiatrists, doctors about an alarming incidence of mental illness among children in detention and the former chief psychiatrist says the Department of Immigration was asked to hide these statistics. What's your reaction to that?

JULIE BISHOP My reaction is that this investigation must be allowed to run its course. I understand that my colleague, the Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, has agreed to appear. A number of witnesses are currently giving evidence and it would be highly inappropriate for me to speculate on that evidence while the inquiry is underway.

JOURNALIST The Human Rights Commission President, Gillian Triggs, says Nauru is not a safe place for children. If it is determined by the end of this investigation that that is in fact the case after a stream of doctors have now said so, will you move those children?

JULIE BISHOP I'm not going to speculate on the outcome of an investigation. The whole point of an investigation is to come to a conclusion and so it would be highly inappropriate for me or indeed for anybody else to comment on the presentations that various witnesses have been giving to this inquiry and allow the inquiry to do its job.

JOURNALIST Minister, thank you very much for joining us.


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