MELBOURNE - Flags flew at half mast on Thursday as Australia held a national day of mourning for those killed in the MH17 crash in Ukraine, a day after experts suspended the search for body parts.
Australia lost 38 citizens and residents, including children, when the Malaysia Airlines plane from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was downed over eastern Ukraine on July 17, killing all 298 on board. Church bells chimed around the country as a memorial service was held at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne, chosen as 16 of the Australians who died were from Victoria State.
Grieving families were joined by dignitaries including Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove. "Today is a national day of mourning and we will remember the 298 innocent people who died on Flight MH17," Abbott said ahead of the service. "We grieve for all of them, but particularly for the 38 who called Australia home. Today we remember them and we will honour them."
Australia has committed hundreds of police, defence and other officials to the task of repatriating the Australians who perished in Ukraine but suffered a setback when the search was called off on Wednesday. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said a deteriorating security in eastern Ukraine meant the mission could no longer operate safely.
So far, 228 coffins with human remains have been flown to The Netherlands, which suffered the most casualties in the crash. Former Australian defence force chief Angus Houston, who is coordinating the Australian response to the disaster, said the teams on the ground had achieved much of what they set out to do.
"When search and security conditions improve, we will conduct a final inspection to ensure that we have recovered all identifiable remains," he said in a statement. "We are committed to honouring the victims of flight MH17 and seeking to give their loved ones the closure they deserve."