The West

National day of mourning for MH17 victims
National day of mourning for MH17 victims

MH17 victims represented the best of modern-day Australia and will never be forgotten, the prime minister has told mourners at a national memorial service.

One thousand mourners gathered at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne to remember the 38 Australian citizens and residents who were killed on July 17 when the Malaysia Airlines jetliner was downed by a missile over eastern Ukraine. All 298 people on board perished in the disaster.

"You have not been abandoned and you never will be," Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the congregation, which included many family and friends of the victims.

He said it was a time to rededicate the nation to supporting the bereaved, obtaining justice for the dead and for their families, and to working for a better world.

"The dead of flight MH17 reflect what's best in modern Australia: doctors who worked with refugees, teachers who worked with indigenous people and children with disabilities, volunteers in our armed forces and with local charities, business innovators and pillars of local communities, young people filled with passion for the life before them," he said.

Mourners shed tears as they placed yellow wattleseed branches on a wreath to remember the dead.

Amid the pipe organ and gothic columns, singers Katie Noonan and Abby Dobson injected a modern element singing the Leonardo's Bride song Even When I'm Sleeping.

Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart welcomed the congregation before the Australian Boys Choir sang the national anthem.

Archbishop Hart said the attack was worthy of condemnation.

"The why of terror, the incredulity and condemnation of the perpetrators gave way to an avalanche of compassion, love and prayer for those so burdened," he said.

"Here in Melbourne today, regardless of origin or creed, we stand in solidarity with those who are suffering unimaginable loss."

Leaders of different faiths addressed the packed cathedral before Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove spoke of the grief, shock, anger, confusion and loss felt across the globe as a result of the disaster.

"Today, as a nation, we demonstrate to the world how highly we value life, how we come together to look after our own, and how we afford the departed the honour and the respect that they are due," Sir Peter said.

"So often words do not and cannot express our true feelings and thoughts during such a time of great loss. Yet, at such a time, even the most deeply bereaved can demonstrate extraordinary fortitude."

He paid tribute to the West Australian Maslin family, who lost children Mo, Evie and Otis - aged 12, 10 and 8 respectively - along with their grandfather Nick Norris.

"In spite of the enormity of their loss, the depth of their despair, their love exceeds and surmounts all the hatred in the world."

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said the nation was united in its grief.

"We mourn 38 of our own who laughed, learned and loved beneath the Southern Cross that today flies at half mast around the nation," he said.

The Victorian capital, cloaked in sombre grey skies on Thursday morning, was chosen because 16 of the 38 Australian citizens and residents killed were from that state.

Yesterday, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop broke down while recalling the moment she spoke to the children's parents.

"I knew from the moment I talked to that family that we were doing the right thing. And when they said to me as I hung up just bring them home, whatever we did over the next two weeks was to do that," Ms Bishop said.

Half a world away, investigators in Ukraine have suspended their search for body parts at the MH17 crash site on Wednesday because of deteriorating security in eastern Ukraine, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.

"It doesn't make sense to continue with the repatriation in this manner," the Dutch leader told a press conference in The Hague.

Rutte said increasing tension between Kiev -- which is battling pro-Russian separatists in the area -- has made it too unsafe to continue with the search for victims' remains.

"It goes without saying that Australia and Malaysia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation are with us on this issue," Rutte said.

"We have done what we could under the current circumstances," he said.

On Thursday, a flight containing a large number of personal belongings of victims are expected to arrive in the Netherlands, Rutte also announced.

This included photo albums, jewellery, cameras, notebooks, passports and cuddly toys.

A total of 298 passengers and crew were killed when the Boeing 777 jet flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was blown out of the sky almost three weeks ago.

The United States says insurgents shot down the plane with a surface-to-air missile likely supplied by Russia, but Moscow and the rebels blame the Ukrainian military.

The search for body parts at the MH17 crash site on Wednesday because of deteriorating security in eastern Ukraine, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said. Photo: AAP

On Monday, Malaysian experts joined Dutch and Australian police for the first time as they continued combing the area for traces of the victims.

So far, 228 coffins with human remains have been flown to The Netherlands, which suffered the most casualties in the July 17 crash and where the painstaking identification process is taking place.

The probe into the crash has been repeatedly delayed by fighting in the region.

"We have to stop the mission at this point, but we'll continue as soon as the situation allows," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said on his official Facebook page.

- 'Safety is top priority' -

Earlier on Wednesday, Dutch, Australian and Malaysian investigators were enlisting the help of local villagers by handing out flyers in the small nearby village of Rozsypne.

The flyers asked local villagers to help locate victims' remains and personal belongings and also to tell what they saw or experienced during the disaster, the Dutch Justice Ministry said in a statement in The Hague.

But it later issued another statement quoting the head of the Dutch police mission in Ukraine, Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg as saying the security situation deteriorated so "police personnel and experts can no longer perform their work safely."

"The safety of our people is our top priority. This was highlighted today (Wednesday) when small calibre guns were fired close-by the search team," Aalbersberg said, forcing the the experts to move to a secure location.

Aalbersberg thanked local villagers for their assistance but said "our team is disappointed that they can't complete their important task."

"At the same time, we are pleased that we have been able to recover human remains and personal belongings," he said.

He said a total of 10 one-cubic-meter packages had been filled with personal goods collected around the crash scene.

"These include items of great significance to the victims' loved ones, such as photo albums, cameras, jewellery, diaries, passports and cuddly toys," Aalbersberg said.

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