KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Carried by soldiers and draped in the national flag, coffins carrying Malaysian victims of Flight MH17 returned home Friday to a country still searching for those onboard another doomed jet and a government battling the political fallout of both tragedies.
The bodies and ashes of 20 victims from the Malaysia Airlines jet that was shot down over eastern Ukraine in July were given full military honors and a day of national mourning was declared, the first for civilians in the country's five-decade history.
Many people in offices in the nation of 30 million observed a minute's silence as the hearses were driven from the tarmac of Kuala Lumpur International Airport to private funerals. Some public trains in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, stopped operating.
All 298 people onboard died when the jet was shot down over an area of Ukraine controlled by pro-Russia separatists on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. The victims included 43 Malaysians and 195 Dutch nationals. An international investigation is ongoing, but no one has been arrested.
The return of the bodies also represented a political triumph for Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose already shaky popularity ratings were hit by his handling of the still unsolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and its 239 passengers and crew in March.
"Today we mourn the loss of our people. Today, we begin to bring them home," Najib said in a statement. "Our thoughts and our prayers are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives. Today we stand with you, united as one."
Najib claimed personal credit for negotiating a deal with pro-Russian separatists for the return of all the bodies. Few details have been released over what the separatists were given in return, and some critics have said that the negotiations with people many regard as terrorists set a dangerous precedent.
"Everyone wants closure for the families, there is no question," said Bridget Welsh, a research associate at the National Taiwan University. "But on the other hand, they (Najib's advisers) saw this as an opportunity for him to look good. It was critical for the government to be seen as responsive and differentiate itself from the handling of MH370."
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