Eindhoven (Netherlands) (AFP) – 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 somber ceremony, as a trumpeter played the Last Post and a large crowd of the bereaved watched.
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 a missile fired from Russia — accused by the West of provoking the MH17 disaster — took down two of its warplanes in the rebel-controlled area.
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 crash site, bodies 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.
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 are to be transferred under police escort to a military base at Hilversum, southeast of Amsterdam, where forensics experts will identify them.
Flags of the 11 nations that lost citizens in the crash flew at half mast at the airport.
Motorways along the 100-kilometer (65-mile) route from Eindhoven to Hilversum were closed for the long convoy of hearses to pass.
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 took off on Thursday.
U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe rebels mistakenly shot down the plane that was 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 on conduct in conflict.
Ukraine said it appeared that missiles that shot down two Ukrainian 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 meters.
It said the planes came down close to the village of Dmytrivka, some 45 kilometers (25 miles) south-east of the MH17 crash site towards the Russian border.
Experts and world leaders have expressed concern that not all remains have been recovered from the sprawling impact site in rebel-held territory.
Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans and his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop will travel together to Ukraine on Thursday for talks about completing the repatriation of bodies and the investigation.
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, including whether they might have been tampered with.
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.
A truce has been declared by rival sides around the impact site, but international investigators still face massive obstacles. Dutch officials confirmed receipt of only 200 of the 298 victims’ bodies.
Monitors say more remains are left at the vast site, littered with poignant fragments from hundreds of destroyed lives.
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 on Tuesday pledged to “do everything” to influence the separatists and ensure a full probe into the crash.
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.
AFP Photo/Genya Savilov