Pentagon Warns of New Arms to Ukraine Rebels
by VOA News July 25, 2014
The Pentagon warned Friday that an "imminent" delivery of Russian artillery to separatists battling government forces in eastern Ukraine creates "a great concern" for civilian casualties.
Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said intelligence sources determined that Russia is prepared to transfer up to a dozen rocket launchers more powerful and potentially more deadly than the separatists currently have. Those rebels are suspected in last week's downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17.
The launchers fire surface-to-surface missiles, as opposed to the SA-11 surface-to-air system believed responsible for the downing. 'They're not precision munitions, Warren added, 'and unquestionably there is an increased risk of civilian casualties."
Designed to destroy buildings, roads and military positions, the launchers could be a 'game changer' in Ukraine, according to another Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Warren said the advent of the Russian artillery, and potential volleys into Ukraine, pose "a great concern.'
"We believe that they are able to transfer this equipment at any time," Warren said of the Russians, noting the United States continues "to work closely with the Ukrainians" on several levels, including by supplying nonlethal aid.
The U.S. has sent investigators from at least two federal agencies – the FBI and National Transportation and Safety Board – to assist with the crash investigation.
Australia beefs up security team
Australia is close to finalizing a plan to send 100 additional police and some defense force personnel to Europe to join a planned Dutch-led international security force to secure the crash site, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday.
Armed pro-Russian separatists control the area and have hampered investigators' attempts to access.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers, some of whom will be armed, will join a contingent of 90 AFP officers already in London waiting for a deal with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to be approved by the country's parliament.
Abbott stressed that the team, which would include countries that lost citizens in the disaster, would not be going in as part of a military mission.
"This is a humanitarian mission, with a clear and simple objective," Abbott told reporters. "I expect the operation on the ground in Ukraine, should the deployment go ahead, to last no longer than a few weeks."
Search and recovery
The international police team would be tasked with ensuring a thorough search of the site so all remains are recovered and sent to the Netherlands for identification. The mission would be complete within a few weeks of arriving, Abbott told the Associated Press.
Abbott announced on Thursday that 50 police officers had been deployed to London ahead of the mission, but a police spokeswoman said on Friday that the number was 90. It was unclear why the discrepancy had occurred.
On Tuesday, Abbott said that Russian-backed rebels were tampering with evidence on "an industrial scale" and argued that outside police or possibly military forces were needed to ensure that did not continue.
The Boeing 777 was shot down last week in eastern Ukraine en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 passengers and crew on board. Twenty eight Australians were killed.
The urgency to secure the area grew after three Australian officials traveled to the crash site on Thursday and found more wreckage and human remains, Abbott said.
'With these remains exposed to the ravages of heat and animals and to the continuing possibility of human interference, it's more important than ever that the site be properly secured,' Abbott told AP. 'Our objective is the remains can be recovered, that the investigation can go ahead and that justice can be done.'
Elsewhere, the French news agency AFP reported Ukrainian troops have retaken the strategically important city of Lysychansk in eastern Ukraine, as they press on with their offensive to stamp out a pro-Russian rebellion, Poroshenko said.
'Ukrainian forces have raised the flag over the town council in Lysychansk,' the presidency said in a statement late Thursday.
Lysychansk - a city of around 105,000 some 90 kilometers northwest of the rebel stronghold of Luhansk - was seized by separatists in early April at the start of a bloody insurgency that has now claimed the lives of some 1,000 people, including the nearly 300 on board downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, AFP reported.
VOA's Jeff Seldin contributed to this report from the Pentagon. Additional information was provided by Reuters and the Associated Press.
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