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Jul 17, 2015 11:41 AM

Dutch, Ukrainians, Australians mark year since MH17 downing

The Associated Press

NIEUWEGEIN, Netherlands (AP) Her voice cracking with emotion, Asmaa Aljuned delivered a parting message Friday that her late husband never got to tell passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 a year ago.

"On behalf of Malaysia Airlines and the rest of the crew, once again we would like to thank you for flying with us," said Aljuned, the widow of the plane's co-pilot. "Thank you and have a nice day."

Hundreds of family members and friends of the 298 passengers and crew killed when MH17 was blown out of the skies above rebel-held Eastern Ukraine rose to give Aljuned a standing ovation at a moving Dutch commemoration service for the victims.

Memorial 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, 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.

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 likely pointed to a missile strike.

Residents of Hrabove, the Ukrainian village where the airliner was shot down, marched to the crash site Friday. 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 late Thursday, 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 neighboring state," 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," 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.

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.

Aljuned, the co-pilot's widow, summed up the feelings of relatives when she told them, "We do not know how much we love a person until we lose them."

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.

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.

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.

In Nieuwegein, the Netherlands, concerns about bringing the perpetrators to justice took a back seat Friday as relatives mourned once again.

Wim van der Graaf, who lost his son in the crash, asked: "Where do I find the strength to keep going and carry this unbearable loss?"

An answer if one was possible was provided by the last speaker at the two-hour event that included readings by families, poetry, song and dance.

The last speaker was Marieke Poelmann, whose parents were killed in a 2010 air disaster in Libya.

"I promise you it will get better," she said to families of the victims. "You have survived the first year and every year it hurts less. That doesn't mean you forget them. Quite the opposite."


AP writers Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Kristen Gelineau in Sydney contributed to this report.


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