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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – 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 the twin 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 in the country's 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.
While the ceremony on the tarmac was solemn and heartfelt, 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 of the 298 people on board. 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."
The victims were carried aboard a specially chartered Malaysia Airlines jet from Amsterdam, where they were taken from the crash site. Three had already been cremated. The coffins were individually lowered from the plane and slowly carried by teams of eight soldiers to waiting hearses.
The repatriation was the first of the Malaysian passengers and crew on the flight. The government has said that the bodies of the remaining Malaysians would follow soon.
The country may never witness a similar homecoming for the victims on board Flight 370. The plane went missing on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and is believed to have crashed somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.
After several surface and underwater searches have turned up nothing, a new underwater search is expected to begin in September and take up to a year to search 60,000 square kilometers (23,000 square miles) of the Indian Ocean seabed.
Assuming the plane is found, the depth of the ocean will make recovery of any bodies difficult. Relatives might also prefer the bodies to stay where they are.
Brummitt reported from Singapore.