MH17 crash: search for remains halted as Australia begins day of mourning

Increased fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukraine forces Dutch PM to suspend work on the site

The Dutch prime minister has halted the search for the remains of victims of the MH17 crash due to increased fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukraine, but Australia’s special envoy said inspections would resume once it was safe.

The announcement comes as Australians pause for a national day of mourning for the 38 citizens and residents killed when flight 17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine on 17 July, killing all 298 on board. Around 228 coffins have been returned to the Netherlands.

The Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, will attend a national memorial service for the victims in Melbourne, joined by grieving families, members of the public, and other dignitaries including the governor general, Sir Peter Cosgrove, and the opposition leader, Bill Shorten.

Australian flags will fly at half mast, church bells will chime and the nation will pause.

“We will give thanks for their lives and we will pray for their loved ones,” Abbott said.

“We will pause.”

Increasing tension is making it too dangerous for the humanitarian mission – which includes 500 Australians – to continue searching for bodies, the Dutch leader Mark Rutte told a press conference in The Hague on Wednesday. However, he promised victims’ families the search would continue at some point.

“It doesn’t make sense to continue with the repatriation in this manner,” Rutte said.

“It goes without saying that Australia and Malaysia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation are with us on this issue.

“We have done what we could under the current circumstances.”

Australia’s special envoy, Air Chief Marshal Houston, said that while the first phase of the humanitarian mission had concluded, Australia was committed to honouring the victims of the doomed flight and giving their loved ones closure.

“Our purpose was to recover remains from the site. We did this swiftly and thoroughly, while it was safe to do so,” he said in a statement.

“When search and security conditions improve, we will conduct a final inspection to ensure that we have recovered all identifiable remains.”

Abbott said 7 August had been set aside to mourn all 298 people who died when the Malaysia Airlines plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine almost three weeks ago.

But in particular the nation would remember the 38 Australians.

Melbourne was chosen as the host of the national memorial service because 16 of the people killed were from Victoria. The interdenominational service will take place at St Patrick’s Catholic cathedral.

In Brisbane, St John’s Anglican cathedral will ring its bells at noon and a candlelit vigil will be held at St George’s Anglican cathedral in Perth, from 5pm (WST).

Among the victims were the three children of Perth couple Rin and Anthony Maslin – Mo, Evie and Otis – who were remembered at a separate memorial service on Sunday.

The national memorial service will begin at 10.30am (AEST) on Thursday and will also be broadcast at Federation Square in Melbourne and at King George Square in Brisbane.

It will be telecast live on ABC.


Helen Davidson and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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