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Hundreds remember Malaysia Airlines victims one year on

Published 17/07/2015

Russia-backed separatists pass a memorial to victims of the plane crash at the crash site near the village of Hrabove (AP)
Russia-backed separatists pass a memorial to victims of the plane crash at the crash site near the village of Hrabove (AP)

Hundreds of family members and friends of the 298 passengers and crew killed when Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was blown out of the skies above Ukraine have taken part in moving commemoration services.

Ceremonies in the Netherlands, Ukraine and Australia took place amid a sharp dispute over who was responsible for downing the Boeing 777, which was heading from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

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

Several weeks before MH17 was shot down, separatist rebels 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 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.

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 by multiple objects - a conclusion that experts said pointed to a missile strike.

Residents of Hrabove, the Ukrainian village where the airliner was shot down, marched to the crash site today. Half a world away, Australia's prime minister remembered the "savagery" of the attack as he unveiled a plaque in Canberra as dozens of victims' families grieved.

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

They joined about 100 other people, who carried 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.

Rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko, who arrived at the commemoration ceremony on crutches and surrounded by a posse of gunmen, accused the Ukrainian government of taking down MH17.

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

"It would not have happened without the participation and an order from top political and military leaders of the neighbouring state," Mr Poroshenko said in a televised address.

In Canberra, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott unveiled a plaque, set in soil that a police officer brought back from the Ukrainian field where the wreckage fell. The plaque listed 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," Mr Abbott said.

The premier 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.

In the Netherlands, the names of all 298 victims were read out - a process that took 27 minutes - before a minute's silence was held at the time when exactly a year earlier air traffic controllers lost contact with MH17.

An Australian news agency today 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.

Mr Abbott called the video "an atrocity" and said he was confident the plane was shot down by weaponry brought across the border from Russia.

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

Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine have asked the UN 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. President Vladimir Putin said setting up a tribunal would not make sense while the investigation continued.

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