Memorials for MH17 victims as calls grow for justice

Jan Hennop

Relatives of those killed when flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine exactly a year ago joined emotional memorials as calls mounted for a UN-backed tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the tragedy. All 298 passengers and crew -- the majority of them Dutch -- died on July 17 last year when the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was downed over rebel-held east Ukraine during heavy fighting between Kiev's armed forces and pro-Russian separatists. Flags flew at half-mast in the Netherlands as about 2,000 relatives and friends gathered at a ceremony in Nieuwegein to mourn the victims of the disaster, many of whom were children on their way to summer holidays. Kiev and the West point the finger at the separatists, saying they may have used a BUK surface-to-air missile supplied by Russia to down the plane. But Moscow denies involvement and instead accuses Ukraine's military. "There is nothing we can do, we can't turn back the clock," said Evert van Zijtvelt, who lost his 18-year-old son, Robert-Jan, and daughter Frederique, 19. "It has been a very heavy year." Sobs could be heard as relatives read out the names of all those killed and photos of the dead were shown on a giant screen accompanied by sombre piano music. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte assured the bereaved that justice would be done. "The investigation into what exactly happened and everything that still needs to be done will be to do right by your loved ones," Rutte told the gathering. - 'Healing process' - In Canberra, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott unveiled a plaque in memory of those killed, including 38 Australian citizens and residents. Australian Paul Guard, who lost his parents Roger and Jill, made the journey to the Australian capital with nine other family members. "It will be a difficult day, but hopefully a useful part of the healing process," he told reporters. Malaysian relatives also took part in a memorial service in Kuala Lumpur last week, as Friday is a feast day marking the end of Ramadan. At the crash site in eastern Ukraine, around 200 villagers gathered to remember the day bodies and plane parts fell from the sky. The locals -- mostly bussed in by separatists -- waved flags of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and carried banners accusing Kiev of killing innocent people in the ongoing battle with rebel forces. "You were killed. But we are still being killed," read one banner. There was no official comment from the Kremlin on the anniversary, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov laid a basket of flowers outside the Netherlands embassy, Echo of Moscow radio reported. Around 100 Russians also brought flowers and paper planes to the embassy, after a call by Open Russia, a group created by self-exiled Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. One of the Russians who gave her name as Tatiana said she came to the embassy to honour the memory of the victims and "ask for forgiveness". "All the information that is available freely inclines me to think that as a national of Russia I, too, am implicated in this. In this tragedy, I, too, am responsible." - Calls for UN tribunal - The Netherlands has been tasked with leading the retrieval of victims' remains and investigating the cause of the crash, as well as finding and punishing possible perpetrators. Apart from two passengers, both Dutch, the remains of all other victims have been found and positively identified. The Dutch Safety Board is expected to release a final report into the cause of the crash during the first week of October, but has stressed it will only address the cause, not the perpetrators. The board released a preliminary report last year saying damage to the plane appeared to "indicate that there were impacts from a large number of high-energy objects from outside". A criminal probe by a joint investigation team consisting of Australian, Belgian, Dutch, Malaysian and Ukrainian detectives is under way. The UN Security Council has adopted Resolution 2166, which demands those responsible "be held to account and that all states cooperate fully with efforts to establish accountability". Britain, France, Malaysia, the Netherlands and others have backed a UN-backed tribunal, but veto-wielding Security Council member Russia is opposed. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday expressed his condolences to the relatives of the dead and called for those responsible to be held to account. "While the pain caused by this tragedy cannot be erased, the victims must be honoured by a collective effort to ascertain the truth about the incident," his spokesman said in a statement. Meanwhile, the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine on Friday held their first four-way talks since April 30. In a phone conversation, they called for a "strict respect of engagements" pledged in a peace deal to end the Ukraine crisis, the French presidency said.