Two military aircraft carrying the first bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines crash left the embattled plains of eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, bringing some consolation to grieving relatives who still must wait for positive identifications and answers about who caused the disaster.
The Dutch government declared a day of national mourning as the country prepared for the arrival of the first bodies in the afternoon. The crash on Thursday killed all 298 people — most of them Dutch citizens — aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will attend an arrival ceremony at Eindhoven.
The Dutch C130 Hercules carrying 16 victims of MH17, which was downed over rebel-controlled territory almost a week ago, is expected to arrive in Eindhoven at 2am NZT.
That flight will be followed shortly afterwards by an Australian RAAF C17 transporter carrying approximately 24 bodies.
The two military planes will transport 200 bodies in a back-and-forth convoy from Ukraine to the Netherlands so the extensive forensic process of identifying bodies can begin.
The planes will fly direct to Eindhoven airport in the Netherlands, where they’ll be officially received by the Dutch king and queen, Australia’s representatives, the Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove, Foreign Minister Bishop and other dignitaries.
Apart from King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and relatives of the victims will also be at the airport.
The ceremony will be a solemn, dignified affair with no speeches expected.
A minute’s silence will be observed before a motorcade takes the bodies to the Korporaal van Oudheusden barracks, where the process of identifying them will begin.
A Dutch flag is flying at half mast outside Eindhoven Airport, with visitors already laying down flowers at its base.
The Netherlands have declared Wednesday a national day of mourning.
Earlier at Kharkiv airport, Australia’s special envoy in Ukraine, retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, described the downing of MH17 as ‘‘a tragedy of unspeakable proportions’’ at a moving ceremony.
The first coffin was carried to a Dutch Hercules C130 by six Ukrainian guards. They were handed over to Dutch air force officers and loaded into the plane.
The other three coffins were then loaded.
After the short speeches, there was a minute’s silence.
Speaking before the loading of the bodies, Houston said representatives from around the world were in Ukraine’s second-biggest city to honour all those who had been lost and to pay their respects as the victims began their journey home.
He said those at the airport stood together united in grief with the families and friends who had lost people they cherished. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysmanalso also paid his respects to those who had died.
‘‘The people guilty of this terrorist act will be punished,’’ he vowed, speaking through a translator.
Dutch ambassador Hans Docter said of the victims: ‘‘Today your journey home begins — it still will be a long journey.’’
It is expected to take up to a month to identify the bodies in the Netherlands, but Docter promised the Dutch would move ‘‘as quickly as possible’’.
Representatives from Malaysia, Britain, Canada and the US also attended the ceremony, as well as Australia’s ambassador to Ukraine, Jean Dunn, and the London defence attache, Colonel Peter Steel.
For one grieving mother, the arrival of the bodies marked a new stage of mourning and brought to an end the pain of seeing television images of victims lying in the undulating fields or in body bags being loaded into a train.
‘‘If I have to wait five months for identification, I can do it,’’ said Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand, whose son, Bryce, and his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers died in the crash, said before setting off for Eindhoven. ‘‘Waiting while the bodies were in the field and in the train was a nightmare.’’
There was confusion about how many of the 282 corpses which the rebels said they have found were on the train which arrived in Kharkiv, a government-controlled city, on Tuesday.
Jan Tuinder, the Dutch official in charge of the international team dealing with the dead, said that at least 200 bodies were aboard the train and that more remains could be found once the body bags are examined fully.
Wreckage from the aircraft fell on territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists who have been battling the Kiev government since April. US officials say the plane was probably shot down by a missile, most likely by accident.
Meanwhile, grieving relatives have had chilling confirmation that their loved ones possessions were looted from the crash site.
Some relatives in the Netherlands dialled the mobile phone numbers of crash victims, and they were answered by people with ‘‘eastern European-sounding voices’’, De Telegraaf reported.
The relatives were shocked when they heard the voices, the newspaper said.
Telephone companies agreed to waive the usual requirement for a death certificate and agreed to cancel the phone subscriptions, so those who took the phones could not continue to use them.
There have been several reports of looting at the crash site, which spreads over more than 50 square kilometres and has not been secured, as it is in separatist-controlled territory.
Anyone with the right accreditation, obtained from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, can roam the site under the watch of the militia.
Journalists who examined the scene said there was a notable lack of items such as phones, wallets, cameras and jewellery.
Some footage shot at the scene appears to show one militant taking a ring and putting it in a paper bag
Ukraine has also accused local militants of stealing diplomatic papers carried on the flight.
The European Union on Tuesday imposed sanctions against more Russian individuals but refrained from targeting entire sectors of the Russian economy while waiting for clearer evidence of Moscow’s role in the disaster.
Senior US intelligence officials said Tuesday that Russia was responsible for ‘‘creating the conditions’’ that led crash, but they offered no evidence of direct Russian government involvement.
The officials, who briefed reporters Tuesday under ground rules that their names not be used, said the plane was likely shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The officials cited intercepts, satellite photos and social media postings by separatists, some of which have been authenticated by US experts.
The intelligence officials were cautious in their assessment, noting that while the Russians have been arming separatists in eastern Ukraine, the US had no direct evidence that the missile used to shoot down the passenger jet came from Russia.
- AAP, Reuters, Sydney Morning Herald