SYDNEY - Australian families affected by the MH17 tragedy will be offered the opportunity to go to the Netherlands to travel home with the bodies of victims, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Wednesday.
At least 37 of those who died when the Malaysia Airlines jet was apparently shot down over Ukraine last week - killing all 298 onboard - called Australia home.
Abbott, whose government was behind a UN Security Council resolution that Monday unanimously demanded full access to the site in rebel-held east Ukraine, has vowed to bring the bodies home.
The remains of victims were taken by train to the government-held Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Tuesday, and Dutch experts are set to fly the bodies to the Netherlands for identification and repatriation.
"By its very nature, it may take some weeks before we can honour the dead by returning them to those they loved and those that loved them. But we will bring them home," Abbott said in a statement.
"Once the Australian victims of MH17 have been identified, the government will transport their families to the Netherlands, should they wish, so they can accompany their loved ones home." Abbott said Governor General Peter Cosgrove would be present for the arrival of both the Dutch and the Australian aircraft bringing the bodies to the Netherlands.
"It is important for the families and for our nation, that our people be received by one of our own," he said.
Abbott has been highly critical of efforts to secure the crash site, and Australia is deploying more than 100 officials to Ukraine and the Netherlands to support efforts to bring the bodies home.
"After the crime comes the cover-up," Abbott said on Tuesday. "What we have seen is evidence tampering on an industrial scale. That has to stop." The prime minister's special envoy, retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, is already in Kharkiv for the ceremony marking the departure of the first caskets containing the victims' remains.
But Dutch experts have said they were only sure 200 bodies had been delivered so far - less than what the pro-Russian rebels had promised.
International monitors also said some remains were left decomposing under the sweltering summer heat in the vast crash site in rebel-held east Ukraine.
Abbott said since the start, the government's objectives had been firm - retrieve the bodies, secure the site, conduct the investigation and obtain justice for the victims and their families.
"The Australian government will not rest until this is done," he said.