Malaysia falls silent as remains of MH17 dead arrive in Kuala Lumpur
A country torn by twin air tragedies stands united during historic day of national mourning
Carried by soldiers and draped in the national flag, coffins carrying Malaysian victims of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 returned home yesterday as the search continues for those onboard another doomed jet and the government battles the political fallout from the two tragedies.
The bodies and ashes of 20 victims from the airliner that was shot down over eastern Ukraine last month were given full military honours and a day of national mourning was declared - the first in the country's history.
Many people in offices in the nation of 30 million observed a minute's silence as the hearses were driven from the tarmac of Kuala Lumpur International Airport to private funerals. Some public trains in the capital stopped operating.
All 298 people on board died when the jet was shot down over an area of Ukraine controlled by pro-Russia separatists on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The victims included 43 Malaysians and 195 Dutch nationals. An international inquiry is going on, but no one has been arrested.
"Today we mourn the loss of our people; today, we begin to bring them home," Prime Minister Najib Razak said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives. Today we stand with you, united as one."
Najib claimed personal credit for negotiating a deal with pro-Russian separatists for the return of all the bodies of those on board. Few details have been released over what the separatists were given in return. Some critics have said the negotiations with people many see as terrorists set a dangerous precedent.
Najib's government had already been criticised for its handling of the still unsolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and its 239 passengers and crew in March.
"Everyone wants closure for the families, there is no question," said Bridget Welsh, a research associate at National Taiwan University. "But on the other hand, [Najib's advisers] saw this as an opportunity for him to look good. It was critical for the government to be seen as responsive and differentiate itself from the handling of MH370."
The victims were carried aboard a specially chartered Malaysia Airlines jet from Amsterdam, where they were taken from the crash site. The coffins were slowly carried from the plane, one at a time, by teams of eight soldiers to waiting hearses.
The government has said the bodies of the remaining Malaysians will follow soon.
The country may never witness a similar homecoming for the victims of flight MH370. Searchers have found no trace of the plane, which disappeared on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and is believed to have crashed somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean. A new underwater search of 60,000 sq km of the seabed is due to begin next month and take up to a year.