The first bodies from flight MH17 arrived in the Netherlands on Wednesday almost a week after it was shot down over Ukraine, with grieving relatives and the king and queen solemnly receiving the as yet unidentified victims. Church bells rang out throughout the country as the planes touched down with the much-delayed return of the first 40 bodies of the 298 people killed in the disaster, most of them Dutch.
In a reminder of the ongoing war that is hampering recovery and investigation efforts, the Ukrainian military said that two of its fighter jets had been shot down Wednesday, possibly close to the Boeing's crash site. 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 bodies were given a dignified ceremony as they 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 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. Uniformed members of the Dutch military marched to the planes to unload the wooden coffins, while a trumpeter played the Last Post and Reveille.
Motorways along the 100-kilometre (65-mile) route from Eindhoven to Hilversum have been closed for the long convoy of hearses to pass, one coffin per car. A minute's silence was observed nationwide, during which no flights landed or took off at Amsterdam Schiphol airport, from where the doomed Malaysia Airlines flight took off on Thursday.
US 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. The rebels on Wednesday used rockets to shoot down two Ukrainian Sukhoi fighter jets, although it was not clear exactly how far away from the Malaysia Airlines crash site. Both pilots managed to parachute out, military spokesman Vladislav Seleznev said of the shooting down possibly as close as 25 kilometres (16 miles) from the MH17 crash site. Experts and world leaders have expressed concern that not all the remains have been recovered from the sprawling crash site in rebel-held territory.
"It's quite possible that many bodies are still out there, in the open in the European summer, subject to interference, and subject to the ravages of heat and animals," said Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, whose country lost 28 nationals. 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 crash probe, the foreign ministry said.
The rebels controlling the crash site released some 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, on Wednesday.
DNA samples taken -Rutte has warned that it could take weeks or even months for the bodies to be identified, although some are expected to be handed over 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 task.
A truce has been declared by rival sides around the crash impact site, but international investigators still face massive obstacles. Dutch officials confirmed receipt of only 200 of the 298 victims' bodies. International monitors said more remains were left at the vast crash 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 officers to secure the site, amid concerns that 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. Ukrainian government troops are pushing on with an offensive to wrest control of east Ukraine's industrial heartland from the pro-Moscow separatists.