Ukrainians, Australian kin mark year since MH17 downing

Mstyslav Chernov
Associated Press

Hrabove, Ukraine — In a solemn procession, residents of the Ukrainian village where a Malaysian airliner was shot down with 298 people aboard a year ago marched Friday to the crash site. Half a world away, Australia’s prime minister remembered the “savagery” of the attack as he unveiled a plaque in Canberra set in soil from the field where the wreckage fell.

The two ceremonies come amid a sharp dispute over who was responsible for downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was heading from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2014, when it was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian and Western authorities say the plane was downed, most likely by mistake, by a missile fired either by the separatists or the Russian troops who they say back the rebels with weapons and manpower.

A preliminary report released in the Netherlands last year said the plane had no technical problems in the seconds before it broke up in the sky after being struck an object that could have been a missile.

Several weeks before the plane was shot down, Russia-backed separatists had bragged about acquiring a missile system and had downed several Ukrainian military aircraft in eastern Ukraine, killing 49 people in one incident.

The rebels and Moscow say the separatists had no such missile systems at their disposal and that the plane was hit by a Ukrainian warplane or a Ukrainian-fired missile.

But the rebel denials of shooting down MH17 have been increasingly challenged by resident accounts, journalists’ observations on the ground and the statements of one rebel official. The Ukrainian government has also provided purported communications intercepts that it says show rebel involvement in downing the plane.

In the eastern Ukrainian village of Hrabove, 200 residents carrying flowers gathered in a church for a memorial service and a procession Friday to nearby fields organized by local leaders and the Russia-backed rebels who control the area.

The procession mainly consisted of women and children who carried icons and chanted Orthodox liturgical music, with perimeter of the march guarded by men in Soviet military uniforms.

They joined about 100 other people, who were carrying separatist flags and those from the countries of the victims, to stand by a small stone at the crash site that bore a plaque saying: “To the memory of 298 dead, innocent victims of the civil war.”

Some of the mourners held banners accusing the Kiev government of waging a war on them and likening the MH17 victims to those killed in indiscriminate shelling in the past year and a half.

“They killed you, but our people still get killed,” one banner said.

The United Nations says at least 6,400 people have been killed since the separatist conflict began in eastern Ukraine in April 2014.

Alexander Hug, deputy chief of the OSCE monitoring mission in Ukraine, was one of the first international observers to arrive at the crash site a year ago. Speaking Friday to reporters in Kiev, he said he was shocked at “how little has changed. Ordinary people in Donbass (eastern Ukraine), like the 298 on board MH17, continue to die and suffer.”

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko, who arrived at the commemoration ceremony on crutches, accused the Ukrainian government of taking down MH17.

“Any death is a tragedy, all the more so when civilians die,” he said, surrounded by a posse of gunmen, adding that the rebels did their best to help the investigators and the families of the victims. “We are still willing to help those people who will, in the end, uncover the truth and make sure that criminal illegal authorities of Ukraine who allowed this tragedy to happen will be punished.”

Speaking in Kiev late Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said flight was the victim of a “terrorist attack launched from the territory occupied by Russian-backed militants in the east of Ukraine.”

“The advanced weapon with which (the) aircraft was shot down could have come to the hands of terrorists only from Russia,” Poroshenko said in a televised address. “It would not have happened without the participation and an order from top political and military leaders of the neighboring state.”

In Canberra on Friday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott unveiled a plaque, set in soil that a police officer brought back from Ukraine, listing 40 victims “who called Australia home.”

“He knew that the place where MH17 came to rest was sacred and that a piece of it should come back to Australia,” Abbott said.

Abbott and his wife laid a wreath at the base of the plaque. Dozens of family members of the victims followed, many in tears as they added their flowers alongside the wreath. Some kissed the bouquets before they placed them, others kissed their fingers and pressed them against the plaque.

An Australian news agency on Friday released a video purporting to show Russian-backed rebels wandering around the MH17 wreckage, rifling through passengers’ belongings and showing surprise that the plane was a foreign civilian aircraft while calling for local civilians to be kept away. Elements of the same video were aired by the BBC a year ago. The Associated Press could not verify the authenticity or source of the video.

Abbott on Friday called the video “an atrocity” and said he was confident the plane was shot down by weaponry brought across the border from Russia.

In the Netherlands, hundreds of relatives of those killed on MH17 were gathering Friday afternoon at a conference center near the central city of Utrecht, an event organized by the relatives themselves. It was to feature music, dance and the reading out of the names of all 298 victims.

Flags on Dutch government buildings around the country were flying at half-staff throughout the day. The Netherlands was the hardest-hit nation in the MH17 disaster — 196 of the victims were Dutch nationals.

In Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini offered her condolences Friday to the families of the victims and called for a quick probe.

“Those directly or indirectly responsible for the downing of MH17 must be held accountable and brought to justice,” she said.

Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine have asked the U.N. Security Council to establish an international criminal tribunal to prosecute those responsible for shooting down the plane.

Russia, which holds a veto on the Security Council, opposes setting up a tribunal. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that setting up a tribunal would not make sense while the investigation continued.