No military repatriation mission to Ukraine
On Sunday 27 July at 17:30 Prime Minister Mark Rutte gave a press conference on the Ukraine air disaster. This followed an extra cabinet meeting in the Catshuis. 'Over the past few days we have thoroughly examined all options for bringing the victims' remains back to the Netherlands from the crash site as quickly and safely as possible. We have come to the conclusion that gaining the military upper hand by means of an international mission in this region is unrealistic.'
The Netherlands is united in grief with those who have lost their loved ones. The MH17 disaster is now imprinted on the collective conscience of the Dutch nation and that of all those countries whose nationals also died in the crash. At the same time, we all realise that there is still so much to be done. As you know, most of the ministers are in almost permanent contact. And today, for the 2nd time since the terrible disaster, I decided to call a cabinet meeting. The previous meeting was last Wednesday evening. It is not customary to meet on a Sunday, but sometimes the circumstances dictate otherwise.
Before I go into further detail about today's cabinet meeting, I would like to inform you of the latest news on the crash site and the surrounding area. The Dutch National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV) is monitoring the situation and determining on a daily basis whether access can be gained to the site. This morning it decided that it would indeed be possible, allowing 27 Dutch and 11 Australian professionals to search for victims at the scene. However, during the course of the morning, the OSCE issued new information indicating fighting in the vicinity of the crash site. The decision was therefore made to refrain from visiting the crash site today as it was considered unsafe. Every day we look at whether we can travel to the site, and the situation is monitored throughout the day to determine whether it is safe to remain there. We thought we would be able to do so today, but new information reached us in the morning and we are doing our best to make our work as safe as possible.
At the same time, we are examining whether the information we receive on a daily basis - the information we use to decide whether people can go to the crash site - gives us cause to assume that the entire context is changing. Today's fighting appears to be heavier than during the past week. We do not have any further details or any further reports as of yet, but initial reports suggest that heavy fighting is under way. I am unable to say at this point whether this will change the context in which we are working on our main objective - finding the remaining victims at the crash site and bringing them back to the Netherlands.
So that is the latest situation. Now let me go back to today's cabinet meeting. We looked at what we need to do in order to achieve our number 1 priority which, as I just mentioned, is repatriating all the remains still at the scene and, where possible, the victims' personal belongings. That is our goal. Our actions over the past week or so have focused on doing just that, even though most of the remains are now back in the Netherlands. In fact, we have to work hard right now, as time is not on our side.
Over the past few days we have thoroughly examined all options for bringing the victims' remains back to the Netherlands from the crash site as quickly and safely as possible. During this time we have been in close contact with our most important partners: Australia and Malaysia. The crash area is currently held by separatists who have heavily armed forces operating close to the Russian border. We have come to the conclusion that gaining the military upper hand by means of an international mission in this region is unrealistic, even if we were to opt for large-scale military intervention. Using military force to secure the crash site may seem to be the right thing to do to so many people, including myself, but we have concluded that it will not help us achieve our highest priority, and that is repatriating the victims as soon as possible.
We have spoken at length with our international partners and decided that an international military mission of this kind would bring with it a real risk of us becoming directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine. The conflict would then acquire an international dimension, which would only serve to further escalate the situation. So the success of the repatriation mission depends on preventing an escalation in the area. The less potential the mission has for escalation, the better our chances of completing our task quickly and thoroughly.
The government has therefore decided to continue the same approach, while ramping up its efforts. Every day we will assess the security situation, just as we did today, to determine whether we can work at the crash site. Recent days, especially today, have shown that this is unfortunately not always possible. But we simply have a great responsibility towards our people who are carrying out this important work there.
Given our chosen approach and our objective, there will be no need to invoke article 100 of the Dutch Constitution. We will press ahead on the same course, expanding our mission step by step and working very closely with Australia and Malaysia. In the days ahead we will establish the legal arrangements that need to be made between the Netherlands and Ukraine. Foreign minister Frans Timmermans and his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop are travelling to Kyiv this evening in an attempt to accelerate the parliamentary proceedings on the international agreement that would form the basis for the international mission. The political dialogue they are conducting in Ukraine could of course also help create more favourable conditions for those on the ground. To avoid any misunderstanding, I should stress that even without an international agreement with Ukraine, the people who are already there will be able to carry out their work once the security situation is sufficiently stable.
A lot has happened over the past few days. Last Monday the train carrying the victims' remains was finally able to depart, and the air bridge is now operational. As a result, another flight landed in Eindhoven yesterday, with so many people paying their respects both at the airport and along the route to Hilversum.
Unfortunately, it is most likely that not all of the victims were carried back to the Netherlands. That's why we now have 63 people from our national police force and our military and border police working in Ukraine, ready to travel to the crash site. In today's cabinet meeting we decided that we will strengthen that capacity step by step. Each time we will examine the options and determine how many people we need on the ground. On top of the numbers already present, Australia has made 50 police officers available, with a further 100 people in reserve. Malaysia is also prepared to send 68 police to Ukraine during the course of this week.
The mission is being headed by Pieter Jaap Aalbersberg, who will provide the media with regular updates on the progress being made. Angus Houston will oversee Australia's efforts. Both will operate from Kyiv, with support from the Ministry of Defence, which will be responsible for logistics and operations in the crash area. They have the people and the means to do so, enabling those on the ground to carry out their work as effectively as possible.
In the parliamentary debate I mentioned that work in the area is not without risk. Experts and equipment will be sent to the site to provide first aid and transport to hospital should any incidents occur. Together with Australia we will decide whether any additional medical capacity is required.
We have just set out our plans in a letter to parliament, which is of course also available to you. This repatriation mission will end 3 weeks from today. And I repeat, the commander in the region is continuously reviewing the security situation in consultation with the OSCE, which is in contact with all parties at all levels. The commander is of course also receiving input from the security services. When the circumstances allow, we will get down to work with as many people as possible. We believe that this approach will offer us the best chance of achieving our top priority, and that is bringing back the remaining victims.