TOUGHER European Union sanctions on Russia over the apparent shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine by pro-Moscow separatists moved a step closer after talks between David Cameron and the leaders of France and Germany.
Downing Street said the Prime Minister, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande agreed that EU foreign ministers should be ready to impose further sanctions on Russia when they meet on Tuesday.
Mr Cameron is later today expected to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time since the Malaysia Airlines plane was brought down.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has spoken to Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande this morning.
“Both calls focused on two important issues: access to the crash site; and the EU’s approach to Russia given all the evidence suggests the missile was launched by pro-Russian separatists.
“All three leaders agreed that the immediate priority is to secure access to the crash site and to ensure that specialist teams are able to recover the victims and return them home.
“They agreed President Putin has an important role to play by persuading the separatists to grant access and to work with the international community to ensure that all that needs to be done can be done as soon as possible.
“They also agreed that the EU must reconsider its approach to Russia and that foreign ministers should be ready to impose further sanctions on Russia when they meet on Tuesday.”
Putin accused of ‘obstructing’ investigation
The latest developments follow an escalation in the language used by Government ministers about Mr Putin’s administration and the armed rebels thought to be under Moscow’s influence.
Ukrainian officials and monitors have claimed separatists forced emergency workers to hand over all 196 bodies recovered from the Malaysia Airlines crash site and then had them loaded on to refrigerated train carriages bound for a rebel-held city.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond accused Russia of “obfuscation and obstruction” and said Mr Putin could “snap his fingers” and allow a proper investigation to take place at the crash site, but that had not been done.
He warned Russia could become a “pariah state” if it did not behave properly on the international stage.
Mr Hammond told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: “The eyes of the world are on Vladimir Putin and what we are seeing from the Russians is obfuscation and obstruction at the moment.
“The Russians will have probably more information about this incident than anyone. They are very close by, this is only a few miles from the Russian border, they have got lots of military planes in the area, they are saying nothing.
“What we need is full Russian co-operation. Any evidence they control needs to be turned over to the international investigators. They must use their influence to allow international access to the site, and to secure the evidence and to secure respect for the bodies and the possessions of the victims.”
He added: “There is one party in the world who clearly has the ability to snap his fingers and it would be done, and that’s Vladimir Putin and for all the fine words we are hearing from Moscow it hasn’t happened.”
Mr Hammond, who has chaired a series of meetings with Whitehall officials including representatives of the intelligence agencies, said the evidence available about those who were behind the atrocity was not yet strong enough to stand up in court but it would “lead the reasonable person to the unavoidable conclusion that this was a missile fired from rebel-held territory, almost certainly a missile supplied by the Russians”.
Investigators arrive in Ukraine
Two officers from the Metropolitan Police have arrived in Ukraine to assist in the grim task of recovering, identifying and repatriating the bodies of those killed.
A team of six investigators from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch is already in the country, working with international counterparts on the next steps in the effort to establish what happened to MH17.
All 298 people, including 10 Britons, on board the flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur were killed.
The agreement from three of the leading EU members that foreign ministers should be ready to impose further sanctions follows frustrations in Westminster about resistance from Germany to a more punitive regime.
“Russia likes to paint this as a battle between Russia and the West, Russia and the EU,” the Foreign Secretary said.
“Now the entire international community is ranged against Russia.
“We have been very forward-leaning in the argument around sanctions against Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea, for its destabilisation of Ukraine.
“Some of our European allies have been less enthusiastic.
“I hope that the shock of this incident will see them now more engaged, more willing to take the actions which are necessary to bring home to the Russians that when you do this kind of thing it has consequences and they are lasting consequences.”
Cameron and Clegg hit out at Putin
In a strongly-worded article in The Sunday Times, Mr Cameron said: “We must establish the full facts of what happened. But the growing weight of evidence points to a clear conclusion: that MH17 was blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile fired from a rebel-held area.
“If it is the case, then we must be clear what it means: this is a direct result of Russia destabilising a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias, and training and arming them.
“We must turn this moment of outrage into a moment of action.”
Mr Hammond, who was defence secretary until last week’s Cabinet reshuffle, said the UK would continue to provide “technical support and advice” to Ukraine’s military.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the tragedy was “made all the more harrowing for all the families because they don’t think their loved ones, their bodies, are being treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve”.
Mr Clegg told Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch the only positive thing that could come out of the disaster was “if we get really tough with the Russians, with Putin - he is the only individual that can change this”.
Mr Clegg added: “I just think we have got to change gear and say ‘enough is enough, you have got to pull back, you have got to stop supporting these people’ because we can’t carry on like this.”