Still far from closure or clarity in its national tragedy, Malaysia on Thursday declared a day of mourning on Aug. 22 for the victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight shot out of the sky over Ukraine nearly a month ago.
The remains of the first 16 Malaysian victims from the July 17 disaster are due to be flown from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur that day, retracing the flight path of the doomed jet brought down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile that Western intelligence says was fired from separatist-held territory.
Debris from the Boeing 777 and remains of the 298 people on board fell across a wide swath of insurgent-controlled farmland near the eastern Ukrainian village of Hrabove. In the first days after the crash, pro-Russia gunmen from the nearby communities combed through what was later declared a crime scene, then carried on with their battle against Ukrainian government troops, blocking access for international investigators or making it too dangerous for them to work.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced Aug. 6 that the collection of evidence and remains was suspended until the area was safer for the 110 investigators from the Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia.
Gerard Bouman, the Netherlands' top police commander, told reporters in Amsterdam this week that investigation of the crash and a criminal inquiry into those responsible would nevertheless continue based on the evidence collected by the forensics team during its few days of access to the site.
The international forensics team was unable to reach the crash site until two weeks after the plane was downed, leaving the remains to decompose in the sunflower and corn fields amid 90-degree heat. The haphazard collection of bodies and body parts by the insurgents and the few additional remains found by the foreign investigators were transported to a Dutch military facility, where the task of identifying the victims has proceeded slowly.
Dutch forensics officials said Thursday that they had identified 127 victims of the disaster to date.
Twenty-four of the 43 Malaysian citizens aboard the ill-fated flight have been identified, and 16 of them will be flown home Aug. 22 in ceremonies to be televised live for the nation, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced, according to the Malay Mail online news site. One of the 16 victims to be repatriated was a Dutch citizen born in Malaysia whose family has requested cremation and interment in Malaysia, the government leader said.
The names of those identified so far will be made public only on the day of mourning, Muhyiddin said.
The remains of nine of the Malaysians identified so far have yet to be released from the Dutch forensics investigation site, he said.
Fifteen of the Malaysian victims were flight crew and attendants, of which 10 are among those identified and due home.
The Netherlands suffered the most extensive losses in the air tragedy, with 193 citizens killed. Many were en route to a conference on AIDS research in Australia, which lost 38 of its nationals in the disaster.