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Malaysia reluctant to assign blame

Attendees at a vigil in Kuala Lumpur held a moment of silence.

Nicolas ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

Attendees at a vigil in Kuala Lumpur held a moment of silence.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia lost 43 citizens when a missile blasted Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from the sky over eastern Ukraine, and the country’s anger is rising toward Russia following reports that victims’ bodies lie uncollected or have been mishandled — especially troubling news to Malaysia’s many Muslims, for whom prompt, solemn burial of the dead is sacred.

Yet Malaysia’s government, unlike the Obama administration, has proved reluctant to assign blame for the incident.

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Syuhada Daud, a cousin of a Malaysian couple who died with their four children on the flight, said she could not bring herself to watch television reports of debris and bodies, poorly guarded, even looted, on farmland in an area of Ukraine dominated by pro-Russian separatists.

“I most want for the bodies to be safe and brought back here,” she said in a brief interview Sunday in a hotel near Kuala Lumpur where families of the victims have been cared for by Malaysia Airlines. “It’s very important for Muslims to be buried as early as possible, so this is the hardest thing for families,” she said.

In Ukraine, an investigation team from Malaysia has been trying to gain access to the site where pieces of the Boeing 770-200 plane were scattered over the ground Thursday. Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai left Kuala Lumpur for Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, on Saturday night after strongly denouncing the treatment of human remains in a news conference near the airport.

Syuhada said that families of the dead wished for the bodies to be carefully preserved and taken back to Malaysia to be washed, dressed in white and buried with prayers so surviving kin will have graves to visit. Nearly 20 million of Malaysia’s 30 million people are Muslim.

“I understand it’s quite hard because the area is a war zone,” said Syuhada, a cousin of Ariza Ghazalee, a woman who died on the flight with her husband, Tambi Jiee, and their four children: three boys and a girl aged from 12 to 19. “But I feel that there is more that we can do, more that the government can do.”

The family of six was flying back from Kazakhstan to Kuching, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, to resettle in time for a family reunion coinciding with the celebration July 28 of Hari Raya, or Eid al-Fitr, the festive end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, Syuhada said.

News reports of the looting of debris and even the bodies of the 298 people on Flight 17 have added to the anger in Malaysia. “We have seen the bags of the crew members spilled all over” in television broadcasts from eastern Ukraine, said Ismail Nasaruddin, president of the National Union of Flight Attendants Malaysia, at a news conference Saturday night.

Badrul Hisham Shaharin, chairman of an opposition organization, Youth Solidarity Malaysia, said the group planned to organize a protest at the Russian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.

“This is not an ordinary tragedy. This is a crime,” he said. “Russia has a special responsibility, because everyone and the world knows the rebel group in the conflict area is supported by Russia.”

Unhappiness about the treatment of the dead has bubbled over in the Netherlands as well, the country that lost the most citizens in the crash.

In response to news reports of attempts to use bank cards looted from victims of Flight 17, the Dutch Banking Association issued a statement late Saturday saying that the cards would be useless without the corresponding personal identification codes. But the statement added that banks in the Netherlands had agreed to compensate the next of kin for any unauthorized charges.

Public anger over the chaos at the disaster site presents a quandary for the Malaysian government, which sought to maintain warm ties with Russia and kept a distance from U.S. policies. The cautious diplomacy here also underscores the challenges that face the Obama administration as it seeks a prompt and unyielding international effort to isolate Russia over the shooting down of the plane.

President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have said the ground-to-air missiles that shot down Flight 17 were made in Russia, and Obama accused President Vladimir Putin of undertaking a proxy war in Ukraine that caused the tragedy.

So far, however, the Malaysian government has avoided joining the United States and many other countries in openly singling out the Russian government for backing the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine and apparently supplying the ground-to-air missiles that destroyed Flight 17.

Asked by a reporter Saturday whether he agreed with Obama’s assessment singling out Russia, the Malaysian defense minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, said, “We need verification on that.”

“We want to get to the bottom of it,” Hishammuddin said, noting he had held phone talks with the U.S. defense secretary, Chuck Hagel; the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond; and Chinese leaders. “But we do not have a position, until all the facts have been verified, whether the plane was really brought down, how it was brought down, who brought it down,” he said.

Even if Malaysia eventually concludes that the plane was destroyed by separatists using Russia-supplied missiles, it will probably wait for a formal, independent investigation before making any public accusations, said James Chin, a professor of political science and a specialist on Malaysia at the Kuala Lumpur campus of Monash University, which is based in Australia.

“Malaysia is one of the relatively few countries that still values good relations with Russia and still sees it as a superpower,” Chin said.

“The Malaysian thinking is that there’s no need to antagonize Russia unless it’s all there in black and white,” he added. “They’ll wait for a final report from an international organization or independent investigation that blames Russia. Anything based from the United States, a third party, would not be enough on its own.”

Malaysia’s reluctance to assign blame for the loss of Flight 17 partly reflects harsh lessons from just over four months ago, when another Malaysia Airlines plane was lost.

After Flight 370 disappeared March 8, Malaysian officials were widely criticized for initially making confusing and misleading assertions about where the plane had fallen and what clues they had about its still unexplained journey, which investigators believe ended in the southern Indian Ocean off Western Australia.

“We’ve been punished cruelly in front of the entire world for saying things one day that then turned out to be untrue, and we had to retract it the next,” said a Malaysian government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about internal government decisions. “So Malaysia’s going to be very, very cautious about saying anything that we haven’t had independently verified and corroborated.”

Malaysia’s caution about joining Obama’s effort to blame Russia also reflects the wariness that many in this heavily Muslim nation feel toward the United States. A survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center found that 51 percent of Malaysians had a favorable view of the United States, one of the lowest shares in Asia, while 74 percent had a favorable view of China.

The loss of Flight 17 is playing out in Malaysia against the backdrop of widespread anger over the deaths of Muslims in Gaza during the current Israeli military operations there.

Defense Minister Hishammuddin, who has led the investigation into the loss of Flight 370, has been particularly outspoken. “World must stop Israeli ground offensive,” he said in one tweet Sunday.

Asfarina Kartika, another cousin of Ariza Ghazalee and her family, lost on Flight 17, said the family’s planned celebration at the end of Ramadan next week would now be a difficult grieving, quite possibly without bodies to mourn and bury.

“Our main concern is for the bodies, or any of the remains or what, to be brought back to Malaysia for proper burial,” Asfarina said. “Because we are Muslim, so at least if there is the grave for us to visit that is important. That is something sentimental for us.”

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