Leaders, villagers remember victims of downed Malaysian plane

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 17, 2015 8:14 AM

By Maria Tsvetkova

HRABOVE, Ukraine (Reuters) - The rebel-held east Ukrainian village where a Malaysian airliner was shot down honored the 298 victims at a simple ceremony on Friday as calls grew for an international tribunal to prosecute those who brought it down.

After a church service in the village of Hrabove, residents joined a procession across an open field to a gravestone placed near the charred area where twisted metal and body parts came crashing down on July 17 last year.

"To the memory of the dead - 298 innocent victims of civil war," was written on the gravestone, where a Russian Orthodox priest and a mullah said prayers.

About 300 people brought flowers and flags of the countries the victims came from, some with black ribbons attached, and released white balloons into the sky.

"The memory of these people will always be in our hearts ... pray for their souls," said a priest who gave his name as Oleg.

Western governments believe that pro-Russian rebels shot the plane out of the sky with a Russian-supplied BUK missile. Britain and Ukraine marked the anniversary with new appeals for a tribunal to prosecute suspects.

Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed those calls as premature and counter-productive on Thursday in a phone call with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and criticized "politicized" versions of the incident "planted" in foreign media.

Some 193 of the victims were from the Netherlands, where flags flew at half-mast on public buildings. Thirty-nine of the victims were from Australia, which held a memorial service.

"Their passing leaves a void than can never be filled and a pain that still throbs," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot said.

Malaysia remembered the victims, 43 of whom were Malaysian, at a ceremony on July 11.

Malaysia, Australia, the Netherlands, Britain, Belgium and Ukraine have now called for an international tribunal to bring to justice those behind the downing of the airliner.

Rutte has said a United Nations-backed tribunal was his "preferred option" but Western diplomats say they are open to the prospect of a tribunal that is not backed by the U.N. if Russia wields its Security Council veto.

STANDOFF WITH THE WEST

"The murderers should know that punishment is inevitable," Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in Kiev.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement issued in London: "Any attempt to undermine this process would deprive the victims of justice and cannot be tolerated."

The differences over what happened are part of a standoff between Russia and the West over Moscow's role in the conflict in east Ukraine, in which more than 6,500 people have been killed since the separatist uprising began in April 2014.

Moscow denies giving the rebels arms and soldiers. If a report from the Dutch Safety Board, due in October, concludes that rebels shot the plane down with a Russian-made missile, it would undermine Russia's denials and could pave the way to court cases and prosecutions. [ID:nL5N0ZT2FL}

At Hrabove, about 650 km (400 miles) east of Kiev, rebel supporters who came to the crash site, including rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko, blamed the Ukrainian forces.

"The saddest thing is the Ukrainians brought it down and shifted the blame onto us," said a separatist who uses the nom de guerre of Sultan.

Russian officials and state media say Ukrainian forces shot down the plane, a version which many Russians say they believe.

"I think it was the Ukrainians who shot it down. 100 percent. It just can't be any other way," said Vladimir, a laborer in Moscow who declined to give his full name.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam, Alessandra Prentice in Kiev and Kylie MacLellan in London, Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Digby Lidstone)