Dutch remember MH17 victims, hunt those responsible

Hearses carrying the last remains of Dutch victims of the MH17 plane crash, at Eindhoven Airport on May 2.
Hearses carrying the last remains of Dutch victims of the MH17 plane crash, at Eindhoven Airport on May 2.PHOTO: AFP

THE HAGUE (AFP) - Dutch flags will fly at half-mast on Friday as families remember those killed when flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine a year ago, with all efforts now focused on catching those responsible.

Around 2,000 grieving relatives are expected at a private ceremony in the central Netherlands, with Prime Minister Mark Rutte and other top officials slated to attend, organisers said.

But as relatives of those who died in the Malaysia Airlines tragedy on July 17 last year still struggle to come to terms with their grief, the focus is shifting to tracking down the perpetrators and putting them on trial.

All 298 passengers and crew on board the Boeing 777 - the majority of them Dutch - died when the routine flight between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur was shot down during a bout of heavy fighting last summer between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.

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.

"The biggest question still remains: who is responsible?" Dennis Schouten, chairman of the MH17 Air Disaster Foundation, set up last year to represent relatives of those killed, told AFP.

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 (OVV) is expected to release an eagerly awaited final report into the cause of the crash during the first week of October.

But OVV spokeswoman Sara Vernooij stressed the report will only address the cause of the crash, and will not identify those believed responsible.

- 'Loss still raw' -

A criminal probe by a joint investigation team consisting of Australian, Belgian, Dutch, Malaysian and Ukrainian detectives is underway.

Dutch chief prosecutor Fred Westerbeke last month told journalists many "persons of interest have been identified" but a dossier enabling a trial would not be ready before the end of the year at least.

The UN Security Council adopted resolution 2166 which demanded those responsible "be held to account and that all states cooperate fully with efforts to establish accountability".

Malaysia, the Netherlands and others have floated the idea of a UN-backed tribunal, an idea to which veto-wielding Security Council member Russia is opposed.

"If a UN tribunal is the fastest way to put perpetrators on trial, we're for it," said Schouten of the MH17 Air Disaster Foundation.

Friday, however, will give relatives another chance to mourn their loss and seek some form of closure.

"Our loss and sadness are still raw," Schouten said, adding that thoughts in particular go out to the families of the two victims whose remains have not been found.

This includes the family of Alex Ploeg, a 58-year-old biologist. His wife Edith and son Robert also died.

Dutch Justice Minister Ard van der Steur in late June said the chances of finding the remains of the last two victims were "unlikely".

Piet Ploeg, Alex's brother, this week told the Dutch daily tabloid De Telegraaf: "It's hard. I have nothing to say goodbye to when it comes to my brother."

Schouten said relatives were patiently waiting for the results of the investigations currently underway.

"We want to be sure it's done properly and in the best possible way," he said.

"But it's clear: whoever has done this must be traced and punished. Justice must be done."