AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch relatives of victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17, downed over Ukraine in July, will hold the Dutch government liable for damages for its handling of the aftermath of the crash, a lawyer representing families said on Friday.
There were 196 Dutch nationals onboard the Boeing 777 when it crashed on July 17 over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers and crew.
Attorney Bob van der Goen, who represents dozens of families, said a letter was sent to the Dutch government on Friday stating that the relatives would seek unspecified damages, one step before a lawsuit is filed with a judge.
It was the first legal action against the Dutch government, which had been widely praised for its immediate response to the crash.
Comments by Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans on Wednesday about a passenger's body being found wearing an oxygen mask had been "the last straw" for relatives upset with the government's response, Van der Goen said.
Van der Goen said Timmermans' comments, interpreted by the families as meaning victims had been alive longer than previously believed, were "idiotic."
"We will hold the Dutch government liable," he said. "They are negligent because of the slowness of the case and the failure to get to the crash site, which should have been possible."
Timmermans apologised and said in a statement on Thursday he regretted confronting the families with new information via the media before they had been informed officially.
"The MH17 disaster goes straight to my heart. I feel deeply for the families. The last thing I want to do is to increase their suffering. I shouldn't have said it.
"The information was not shared more widely because no conclusion can be drawn and more investigation is required," the statement from Timmermans' office said.
Prosecutors investigating the case said on Thursday: "The oxygen mask was fastened with elastic around the neck of the victim. We understand this raised the question among families why this wasn't revealed earlier. The reason is that the public prosecutors office is still investigating the cause of the crash and the meaning of the oxygen mask."
The aircraft, which was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, is believed to have been hit by a surface-to-air missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian separatists.
Dutch investigators say they have been unable to carry out a full investigation at the scene due to fighting between pro-Russian and Ukrainian government forces.
A preliminary report by the Dutch Safety Board said last month the aircraft broke apart due to "high energy" objects, consistent with theories of a missile strike.
(Reporting By Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Janet Lawrence)