Australian Broadcasting Corporation
ABC correspondent, Stephen McDonell, reports on attempts by Australian and Dutch police to reach the MH 17 crash site.
EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: A contingent of Australian and Dutch police has tonight failed to reach the crash site of flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine. A short time ago, the group decided to turn back, after outbreaks of heavy fighting and a series of explosions in the area. The ABC’s Stephen McDonell had been travelling with the convoy and he joins us now from the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk.
Stephen, what can you tell us about that convoy, which, as we know, you were a part of?
STEPHEN MCDONELL, REPORTER: Well I’ll take you through the events in a moment, but I should say off the bat, today, those AFP officers and other international police officers, they could’ve been killed in their attempts to get to that crash site. And I think now there will be questions being asked: is it really worth sending people through a battle zone to try and reach the crash area? It’s just terrible. Everybody wants them to be able to reach there and remove the remains that are still in the area and to do a proper investigation, but it’s so dangerous. The fighting is so heavy. We’re talking artillery, shells going everywhere, we’re talking about, you know, small-arms fire, and it’s just chaotic and extremely dangerous.
But maybe I should just take you through what happened. So we left here. As you say, I’m in Donetsk. This is a city controlled by the rebels. We were moving towards the crash site. Now, yesterday, the Ukrainian forces moved in there and re-took villages around the crash site, so to get to it, you now have to go across the battle front. We tagged along on the back of this convoy of about, I suppose, 20 or so cars and vans. And when we got to the end point of the rebel-controlled area, that is, the frontier, they let only the inspectors go through into the city, where there’s heavy fighting for control of that between the Ukrainians and the rebels and we were made to stand back. And then, soon after – I suppose it’d be an hour or something – the inspectors came screaming back in the other direction, because, well, as you mentioned, there was too much fighting going on there.
EMMA ALBERICI: So exactly how far do you estimate you were from the crash site when you were turned back?
STEPHEN MCDONELL: We were about 15 kilometres from the crash site and you could hear rockets, you could hear artillery. I’m completely surprised that they’ve gone ahead and tried to get through this area to reach the crash site. You know, do they want somebody else to get killed to try and reach this place? And I know that it’s frustrating, because the inspectors really want to make it there, they really want to be able to do their job. But I can’t stress just how dangerous it is and how fluid the situation has become.
EMMA ALBERICI: So, you touched on it just before; I gather what you’re saying then is that there has been had renewed push by the Ukrainian forces to clear out the pro-Russian separatists. Do you get a sense that this has been intensified?
STEPHEN MCDONELL: Yeah, the Ukrainians think they’ve got the Russian-speaking rebels on the run. They think that they’ve got world opinion on their side. They think that the rebels now have lost the potential backing of Russia because the fear was that Russia would send troops across the border into Ukraine to back them up when the Ukrainian forces attacked. Now that the rebels are being blamed for downing this plane, the feeling is that – I think the calculation by the Kiev Government, that is – that the Russians won’t intervene on the side of the rebels. And so they’re using this window to try and retake this whole area from Russian-speaking rebels. Now unfortunately, this is the very same time that these inspectors have come here to try and do their work. So, yeah, look, fighting has definitely intensified. I mean, we can hear shelling from this building. They’re fighting on the outskirts of Donetsk, and I think most people think that, eventually, this city even will fall to the Ukrainian Government forces.
EMMA ALBERICI: And, Stephen, what is playing out behind the scenes in Kiev is a political struggle. We saw the Prime Minister resign last week, so now there’s going to be a snap election. I mean, that kind of navel gazing in the capital can’t be helping efforts to secure the crash site?
STEPHEN MCDONELL: Sure. I think that probably would be another element in the uncertainty around the planning for this crash site, but either way, it doesn’t really matter what they’re doing in Kiev because on the ground here, there is full-scale fighting going on. And the inspectors – like today, they thought they had agreement from both sides that there’d be a corridor to go through to that crash site. To tell the truth, I don’t think the Australians expected that they’d be taken that way. They thought we’d be going around Kirtushk (phonetic spelling) where this fighting was going on, but lo and behold, the convoy went straight through there. And, yeah, look, whatever’s going on politically in Kiev, it doesn’t really matter, because in terms of facts on the ground, this is a serious place to be in terms of fighting.
EMMA ALBERICI: And just before we go, I was very keen to know from you, Stephen, based on where you are right now, how far away is this armed conflict going on?
STEPHEN MCDONELL: Well, like I say, it’s just on the outskirts of Donetsk. We can hear the shelling from this building. So, you know, I suppose we’re talking 10 kilometres away, it could be, 12, 15 kilometres away. The airport’s been bombed here. The train station has been bombed here. But most of the more heavy fighting is going on further away from Donetsk. It seems that the Ukrainians are methodically picking off town by town to retake. And that’s what we saw yesterday when we went out there and we were stopped. We saw the Ukrainian forces come through a small village and retake it without any resistance. And the rebels, they are scrambling to try and hang on to this area. You see them burning around in their vans, the sort of ragtag army, and they’ve got some serious weapons, but they don’t have the organisation of an army in the same way that the Ukrainians do.
EMMA ALBERICI: Stephen McDonell there in Donetsk in the Ukraine, we appreciate the update. Thank you very much.