Former Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston to be Abbott’s man in Ukraine

Prime Minister Tony Abbott spent much of last night on the telephone speaking with international leaders about flight MH17. AAP/Alan Porritt

Tony Abbott has appointed former head of the Australian Defence Force Air Chief Marshal (retired) Angus Houston as his Special Envoy to lead Australia’s effort on the ground in Ukraine to help recover, identify and repatriate Australian victims of the MH17 downing.

Most recently, Houston has been head of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre searching for the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that disappeared without trace earlier this year.

Abbott said that Houston would work with local and international authorities to provide consular support for families of Australian victims as well as working on victim identification and on the crash investigation itself.

At his news conference today, Abbott warned that Australia would view “very, very badly” any Russian veto of the Australian-sponsored resolution, to be considered by the United Nations Security Council in the next 24 hours. “We will do our best to craft a resolution which, under the circumstances, no reasonable person could object to.”

“I don’t know how the resolution will go. I know that it should be carried by acclamation,” he said.

“But once this resolution has been passed, some consequences then follow – and the consequences are the retrieval of the bodies, the securing of the site and the administration of justice.”

Abbott spent much of last night and this morning on the telephone speaking with international leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He talked with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine, British Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande. The mood of the leaders was “firmer and sterner” than in the first 24 hours after the aircraft’s downing, Abbott said.

Finally being able to speak to the Russian president, Abbott said that to Vladimir Putin’s credit, “he did say all the right things – I want to stress what he said was fine. The challenge now is to hold the President to his word”. Abbott did not want to go into the detail of the conversation.

The Kremlim website said that the President had “expressed his sincere condolences on the death of Australian citizens”.

“Both sides stressed the importance to the completion of the investigation to avoid politicised statements in connection with the tragedy,” according to the website.

The two had agreed on cooperation in international organisations, including the United Nations, in order to create the necessary conditions for work in Ukraine by international experts, the Kremlin said. The leaders agreed to continue contact, it added.

Abbott said access for investigators had become somewhat better but “this is still an absolutely shambolic situation. It does look more like a garden clean-up than a forensic investigation”.

The site was under the control of the Russian-backed rebels “and given the almost certain culpability of the Russian-backed rebels in the downing of the aircraft, having those people in control of the site is a little like leaving criminals in control of a crime scene.” The problem in retrieving the bodies was “the prickliness of the people in control of this part of Ukraine”.

Australia has deployed 45 officials to help the international effort, including 20 from the Foreign Affairs department, 20 from the Australian Federal Police, two Transport Safety Bureau investigators, and three Defence officials.

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