Abbott speaks with Putin during APEC gala

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Prime Minister Tony Abbott has spoken privately with the Russian president over the downing of flight MH17.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has spoken privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine.

The Prime Minister raised the issue during a lavish opening dinner at the APEC summit in Beijing.

It's not clear how Mr Putin responded but the two men expect to speak again today on the sidelines at a leaders' retreat at a lake an hour outside Beijing.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in July this year.

All 298 people on board were killed, including 38 Australian citizens and residents.

It's believed the plane was shot down by Russian-backed rebels operating in the east of Ukraine.

Last night, the two were unexpectedly close during APEC's first group photo call, when Mr Abbott was positioned right behind Mr Putin for the so-called "family photo" in which leaders traditionally wear custom-made matching shirts.

Yesterday, Mr Abbott appeared to soften his tone about the Russian leader, who he had previously threatened to "shirtfront", saying instead that President Putin had agreed in the past to assist the investigation and the Prime Minister congratulated him for that and hoped to find out if he meant what he said.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has urged Mr Abbott not to ease the pressure on Mr Putin to use his influence with Russian-backed rebels to negotiate better access to the crash site in Ukraine and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

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