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CANBERRA, Australia – Australia's prime minister and foreign minister on Thursday sent mixed messages on whether Russia was frustrating Dutch and Australian police efforts to retrieve the bodies of victims of the Malaysian airliner disaster in war-torn east Ukraine.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she feared Russia was behind the daily artillery barrages blocking police, while Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it was too early to judge. Abbott has declined to follow the U.S. and European examples by ratcheting up sanctions against Russia in a bid to pressure President Vladimir Putin into ending his country's support for the separatists.
Bishop said the remains of 80 of the 298 people killed when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down on July 17 could remain at the crash site, which is being fiercely fought over by Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists.
The primary role of police is to retrieve the dead, but they also want to gather evidence to prove who fired the surface-to-air missile. The separatists are the main suspects.
"My great fear is Russia is actively undermining this process. We've had the strongest possible support from the Ukrainian government but still the fighting goes on and there is no ceasefire," Bishop told Australian Broadcasting Corp. from Kiev.
"Whilst I can't point my finger at who starts the shelling, we get absolute assurances from the Ukraine government that it's not them," she said, adding that intelligence suggested missiles came from the Russian side.
Asked whether Russia was frustrating police efforts, Abbott told Melbourne Radio 3AW: "I think Russia is pursuing its own interests."
"But I suspect that it is at least partly in Russia's interests at this time to ensure that our police mission successfully goes ahead," Abbott added.
Abbott declined to say whether Putin had acted adequately to bring about a ceasefire.
"I think it's too early to say," Abbott said. "If we get in, if we can recover our dead and assist the investigation and if that's unhindered by the Russian-backed separatists, well, we'll have to say that ... he has been as helpful as he can be," Abbott added.
But Bishop challenged Putin to do more.
"President Putin says that he's committed to ensuring that our workers can get on to the site," she said. "Well, we've now tried four days in a row and we can't get on to the site and this is heartbreaking."
Bishop said she had heard reports that separatists had laid land mines on the road to the crash site.
"If that is true, it is utterly despicable. That's utterly, utterly unacceptable," she said.