Abbott lays blame on ‘Russian-backed rebels’ for 28 Australian deaths

Debris of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which crashed while flying over the eastern Ukraine. EPA/Alyona Zykina

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has told Parliament that it seems Russian-backed rebels shot down the Malaysia Airlines aircraft in eastern Ukraine, killing 28 Australians among the nearly 300 who lost their lives.

Before addressing the House of Representatives at 11am, Abbott held an emergency meeting of cabinet’s national security committee to discuss the tragedy.

“As things stand, this looks less like an accident than a crime,” Abbott told a shocked and solemn House. “And if so, the perpetrators must be brought to justice.

"Australia will be working in the United Nations Security Council for a binding resolution calling for a full impartial investigation with full access to the site, with full access to the debris, with full access to the black box and with full access to all individuals who might be in a position to shed light on this terrible event.”

MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, with connections to Australia. The 283 passengers included a number of people travelling to Melbourne for the 2014 international conference on AIDS. Among those killed were Joep Lange, the former president of the International AIDS Society.

Flight MH17 was cleared to fly on this path at an altitude of 10,000m.

American intelligence authorities believe the plane was hit by a surface-to-air-missile. United States Vice President Joe Biden said the plane had been “blown out of the sky” and the crash was “not an accident”.

Abbott said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop would summon the Russian ambassador “to seek a categoric assurance … that the Russian government will fully co-operate” in the investigation.

“We owe it to the dead and their families, we owe it to the peace and stability of the wider world to establish the facts and we will do all we humanly can to bring that about,” he said.

In a strong message directed at Russia Abbott said: “The bullying of small countries by big ones, the trampling of justice and decency in the pursuit of national aggrandisement and reckless indifference to human life should have no place in our world.”

Bishop told reporters that getting access to the site was “challenging” because it was in the rebel-held area in the east of the country.

There have been numerous rebel fighting incidents near the MH17 crash site.

Earlier, Abbott, speaking on the ABC, agreed that the proposition that only Russia would have a weapons system which could bring down a plane travelling at 10,000 metres was a “fair point”.

Asked whether Russia’s President Vladimir Putin should be welcome at the G20 Brisbane summit in November given the way Russia had behaved in eastern Ukraine and if it turned that Australians had died because of the use of Russian weaponry, Abbott said “that’s a fair question”. But he said “let’s wait until we’ve got all the facts in before we come to hard and fast conclusions”.

Speaking in Parliament, opposition leader Bill Shorten said Labor would co-operate with the government on what was the next right step to be taken “in this most bewildering and shocking of events”.

“Whether or not that involves anything to do with the G20, we say to the government we will work with your measured approach,” he said.

“As the Prime Minister discussed with me this morning, it is a time for temperate responses, for cool heads and measured action.”

He said the missile that brought down the plane and those that had claimed numerous Ukrainian aircraft could not possibly have been made by the people who fired them. “These separatist terrorists are obtaining these instruments of murder from elsewhere”.

More generally in relation to Ukraine, Russia carried a central responsibility in helping to manage the crisis and resolve the dispute peacefully, Shorten said.

Abbott said “our hearts go out to the families of all the dead”; Australian families would be offered counselling and bodies would be repatriated.

Abbott spoke with the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and will speak with Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak. This is the second Malaysia Airlines major disaster this year - a plane carrying nearly 240 people went missing and has never been found.

As well as the 28 Australians aboard there were also 154 Dutch nationals, 23 Malaysians, 11 Indonesians, six British people, four Germans, four Belgians, three from the Philippines and one Canadian. Other nationalities are yet to be confirmed. There were 15 crew.

Putin said that in the skies over the Ukraine there had been a “terrible event, a terrible tragedy”. The President said the Russian government expressed condolences to bereaved families and to the governments of those countries whose nationals were on the plane.

He said the tragedy would not have happened if there was peace in the area “and of course the state over whose territory it happened is responsible for this terrible tragedy”.

Friends and family members seeking information can contact DFAT hotlines: + 61 2 6261 3305 from overseas; 1300 555 135 within Australia.

Updated at 4:30pm to note that 28 Australians have been confirmed as killed.