First MH17 bodies arrive in grieving Netherlands

Nicolas Delauney

The first bodies from flight MH17 arrived in the Netherlands on Wednesday almost a week after it was shot down over Ukraine, as the conflict flared yet again near the Malaysian airliner's crash site. Uniformed Dutch military personnel solemnly hoisted 40 wooden coffins from two planes and placed them in individual hearses at Eindhoven airport in the south of the country in a powerfully sombre ceremony, as a trumpeter played the Last Post and a large crowd of the bereaved watched, shielded from the press. The televised two-hour ceremony watched across the Netherlands and abroad came in stark contrast to the chaotic and disturbing scenes filmed in the aftermath of the plane crash. Church bells rang throughout the country as the planes touched down in a much-delayed return for the first as-yet unidentified remains of the 298 people killed in the disaster, most of them Dutch. In a dramatic new development in the conflict hampering the recovery and investigation effort, Kiev said missiles fired from Russia -- accused by the West of provoking the MH17 disaster -- took down two of its warplanes in the rebel-controlled area of the crash. The Netherlands has been united in grief and growing anger because of delays in getting bodies home and over the way pro-Russian separatists have treated the site, the victims' remains and personal possessions. The planes left from Kharkiv in Ukraine, where the remains were carried on board by army cadets before a small party of officials. - 1,000 bereaved - Around 1,000 bereaved relatives of the 193 Dutch dead, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and representatives of the other nations that lost citizens on the flight met the planes. The bodies were then driven under police escort to a military base at Hilversum, southeast of Amsterdam, where forensics experts will identify them. Flags of the 17 nations that lost citizens flew at half mast at the airport. Malaysia Airways counted 11 nationalities on the passenger manifest, but some had double nationality. Motorways along the 100-kilometre (65-mile) route from Eindhoven to Hilversum were closed for the long convoy to pass, with crowds gathering on bridges overhead to throw flowers at the hearses. A minute's silence was observed nationwide, during which no flights landed or took off at Amsterdam Schiphol airport, from where the doomed Boeing 777 left on Thursday. US intelligence officials have said they believe rebels mistakenly shot down the plane flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with a surface-to-air missile. Violence erupted again Wednesday in the zone of the crash, as the International Committee of the Red Cross said it considered Ukraine to be in a state of civil war, and warned both sides to abide by the Geneva Conventions. Ukraine said it appeared that missiles that shot down two of its fighter jets in the volatile east were fired from Russia. "According to preliminary information, the rockets were launched from Russian territory," Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council said. A spokesman for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic told AFP its fighters shot down the two aircraft. Both pilots managed to parachute out of the Su-25 jets, which the security council said were flying at an altitude of 5,200 metres. It said the planes came down some 45 kilometres (25 miles) south-east of the MH17 crash site towards the Russian border. - DNA samples taken - Experts and world leaders have expressed concern that not all victims' remains have been recovered from the sprawling impact site, littered with poignant fragments from hundreds of destroyed lives. More bodies are due to arrive in the Netherlands on Thursday, among the 200 which Dutch officials in Ukraine say they have received from the rebels. Rutte has warned it could take months for the bodies to be identified, although some are expected to be returned to families soon. Dutch police have been visiting the bereaved for counselling but also to retrieve DNA samples such as from hairbrushes, details of tattoos and fingerprints, as well as medical and dental records, to help with the identification. - 'Massive obstacles - The rebels controlling the crash site released the first bodies and handed over two black boxes to Malaysian officials only after intense international pressure. The black boxes were delivered to Britain for expert analysis, and Dutch analysts said on Wednesday they had successfully downloaded the data from the cockpit voice recorder and there was no evidence it had been tampered with. The flight data recorder is to be analysed on Thursday, the investigators said. A truce has been declared by rival sides around the impact site, but international investigators still face massive obstacles. Kiev said the Netherlands and other countries that lost citizens are proposing to send police to secure the area, amid concerns vital evidence has been tampered with. Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to "do everything" to influence the separatists and ensure a full probe. Putin is staring down fresh European sanctions just a week after the latest set was unveiled over its role in the Ukraine crisis, which has chilled East-West tensions to the lowest point in years. And Ukrainian government troops are pushing on with their offensive to wrest control of east Ukraine's industrial heartland from the pro-Moscow separatists.