AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Friday it was increasingly unlikely Dutch investigators would be able to reach the Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash zone in eastern Ukraine due to fighting and the approach of winter.
Speaking at a weekly press briefing, Rutte said he was “still furious” that the site of the July 17 disaster remained inaccessible nearly four months after all 298 people onboard died -- two-thirds of them Dutch nationals.
His comments came after a lawyer representing some of the relatives of victims said they would seek damages from the Dutch state for alleged negligence in the aftermath of the disaster.
Experts have been on standby in the region to examine the crash site, but were only able to get to see a small portion of the vast area where debris from the MH17 came to earth because pro-Russian and Ukrainian forces are fighting there.
It is “still not safe enough for Western experts to go and carry out an investigation there,” Rutte said. “My fury has only grown because we know there is a ceasefire and a buffer zone, which are not holding.”
The aircraft, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, is believed to have been hit by a surface-to-air missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian separatists.
The separatists and Ukrainian forces “could at least have enabled the investigators to visit the site to collect human remains and their possessions,” he said.
Earlier on Friday, attorney Bob van der Goen, who represents dozens of relatives of victims, said the families would hold the Dutch government liable for unspecified damages.
“They are negligent because of the slowness of the case and the failure to get to the crash site, which should have been possible,” he said, adding that a letter was sent to the government on Friday stating their position.
It was the first legal action against the government, which had been widely praised for its immediate response to the crash.
Comments by Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans on Wednesday about a passenger’s body that was discovered wearing an oxygen mask had been “the last straw” that led to legal action, Van der Goen said.
Timmermans’ comments were interpreted by the families as meaning victims had been alive longer than previously believed.
The minister apologized and said in a statement on Thursday that he regretted confronting the families with new information via the media before they had been informed officially.
“The MH17 disaster goes straight to my heart. I feel deeply for the families. The last thing I want to do is to increase their suffering. I shouldn’t have said it.”
Prosecutors investigating the case said on Thursday that the information about the mask had not been made public because they were still “investigating the cause of the crash and the meaning of the oxygen mask”.
The mask did not carry traces of DNA, saliva or fingerprints of the victim it was found on, prosecutors said, indicating it might not have been used.
A preliminary report by the Dutch Safety Board said last month the aircraft broke apart due to high velocity objects, consistent with theories of a missile strike.
Despite the popular belief that the plane was shot down by a missile, Rutte said the official position of the Dutch government remained that “we don’t know the cause”.
Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Crispian Balmer