Australia to send 'non-threatening' force to MH17 site

SYDNEY - Australia said Sunday "a number" of armed personnel will enter the MH17 crash site next week, but stressed they would be a "non-threatening force" not accompanied by military troops.

Australia and the Netherlands have been readying their forces ahead of a possible deployment to rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine to secure the MH17 crash site and recover victims' remains and aircraft wreckage.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said some of the Australian team at the site would be armed to protect the crash investigators, but did not specify how many.

"The main focus is on having police investigators, those who are expert in body identification and those who are expert in investigations, Dutch and Australian at this stage," Bishop told broadcaster Channel Ten, speaking from Amsterdam.

"All we want to do is secure the site so that we can inspect it thoroughly and bring back any remains." Her country's special envoy to eastern Ukraine, retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, said Sunday Australian Defence Force (ADF) troops would not be part of the police-led team that searches the debris zone.

Australia is sending 190 Australian Federal Police to the Netherlands, along with a small number of ADF troops, including a medical team, to participate in a planned Dutch-led operation to secure the crash site.

The rebels accused of shooting down MH17 with a missile from Russia have signalled they are only open to allowing a small group of Australian and Dutch officers in.

"Military personnel have been involved in some of the activity but on this one, it's a police-led mission and I think that's the right answer and I think it's going to be very important to posture a non-aggressive, non-threatening force so that nobody will interfere with it," Houston told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"If we go in white vehicles, which is what we're going to do with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, we're clearly going to be in the right sort of posture." Houston said the "humanitarian operation" would start next week, and that "we will have a combination of armed personnel and unarmed personnel if that's the way the government decides to go".

He added that reconnaissance visits by some Australians to the crash site were "very successful" and the separatists they encountered were "professional and cooperative".

All 298 people onboard the Malaysia Airlines jet, including 28 Australian nationals and nine permanent residents, were killed in the crash.