By Trinna Leong
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - People across Malaysia held a minute's silence and wore black on Friday as the Southeast Asian country observed a day of mourning to mark the return of the first 20 bodies among its citizens killed when a jetliner was downed last month.
Malaysian Airlines (MAS) Flight MH17 crashed after apparently being struck by a missile over war-torn Ukraine on July 17, worsening a year of tragedy for the country following the baffling disappearance of another MAS flight in March.
Flags flew at half mast and newspapers daubed their front pages in black to honor the 20 victims, among 43 Malaysians who were on the flight carrying a total of 298 passengers and crew, most of them Dutch.
Malaysian King Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah and Prime Minister Najib Razak joined grieving relatives and somber Malaysia Airlines staff at a ceremony at Kuala Lumpur International Airport to greet the special flight from Amsterdam that brought home the remains.
"Today we mourn the loss of our people. Today, we begin to bring them home," Najib said in a statement.
In the multi-ethnic country where tension between different groups and religions can run high, mourners united in grief with Muslim ethnic Malays and ethnic Chinese standing side by side and reciting prayers for the dead.
"We see Malaysians uniting for one cause today. But there is no absolute closure until the perpetrators are brought to justice," said Anthony Loke, an opposition parliamentarian.
Bodies and wreckage from MH17 were strewn across sunflower fields in the rebel-held region of Donestk for almost a week before the dead were transported to Amsterdam. Russian-backed rebels are suspected of shooting down the jetliner in the mistaken belief it was a Ukrainian military plane.
Fighting between the pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces has hampered attempts for a swift investigation and the search for more remains.
The ceremony on Friday was muted except for the plane's engines as eight men, dressed in traditional Malay attire, carried each coffin out. Hearses and helicopters lined up to transport the victims home for burial.
The loss of MH17 came just four months after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 with 239 people on board. No trace of that aircraft or its passengers has been found since it went missing on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
"It has been a tough year but life goes on and we're here to continually support each other," said an MAS air stewardess in uniform, holding a white rose.
(Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Robert Birsel)