Updated: 07/23/2014 21:33 | By Agence France-Presse

Dutch await first MH17 bodies as nation mourns

The Netherlands on Wednesday anxiously awaited the much-delayed return of the first bodies from flight MH17, declaring an exceptional day of mourning for the 298 dead, 193 of them Dutch.


Dutch await first MH17 bodies as nation mourns

Ukrainian soldiers carry a coffin with the remains of a victim of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash to a military plane during a ceremony in Kharkiv, on July 23, 2014 - by Genya Savilov

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.

Dutch and Australian planes carrying a total of 40 bodies were expected to arrive at Eindhoven in the south of the country at around 1350 GMT, almost a week after the Malaysia Airlines 777 was shot down over rebel-held Ukraine.

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.

-- Church bells to ring --

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.

All church bells in the Netherlands will ring at 1355 GMT, with the first plane's arrival to be marked with a trumpet salute and a minute's silence.

Bereaved relatives, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and representatives of the other nations that lost citizens on the flight are to meet the planes.

An Australian military aircraft carrying another 24 coffins is expected shortly afterwards, with the bodies to be transferred to a military base at Hilversum, southeast of Amsterdam, where forensics experts will identify them.

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.

Flights at Amsterdam Schiphol airport will not take off or land during the minute's silence, and Dutch trains and trams will also halt.

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.

-- Unrecovered bodies --

"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.

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