A Dutch woman mourns the victims of the plane crash. The first bodies from flight MH17 arrived in the Netherlands yesterday almost a week after it was shot down over Ukraine killing 298 people on board. Photo: AFP
The bodies of the first victims from a Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine last week yesterday arrived at a military base in the Netherlands - a nation in shock and sorrow.
Bells pealed and flags flew at half mast in memory of the 298 people killed when flight MH17 came down in an area of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists, in the first national day of mourning since wartime Queen Wilhelmina died in 1962. King Willem-Alexander and Prime Minister Mark Rutte joined dignitaries on the tarmac as two military aircraft carrying 40 plain wooden coffins landed at Eindhoven in the southern Netherlands.
A military guard of honour stood to attention as a trumpeter played The Last Post, the military funeral call for people killed in war.
After a minute's silence - observed in stations, factories, offices and streets across this stunned nation - servicemen from all four branches of the Dutch military boarded the Dutch Hercules C-130 and Australian Boeing C-17 to carry the coffins to 40 waiting hearses lined up on the runway.
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 at the airport of Kharkiv, Ukraine, yesterday. Photo: AFP
Relatives of some of the victims were present at the airport but were shielded from the media glare, officials said.
Thousands of people lined the 100 km route, watching from motorway bridges as the cortege travelled from Eindhoven to the military base at Hilversum where the bodies will remain until they can be identified, a task that could take months.
As the cortege passed, drivers spontaneously stopped their cars and watched silently from the side of the motorway. Some clapped in tribute, others threw flowers on the hearses.
The process will be repeated many times over coming days as the bodies of all the victims are brought home.
Amid US accusations that the rebels shot the civilian plane down in error with a Russian-supplied missile, an opinion poll showed an overwhelming majority of the Dutch want sanctions imposed on Moscow, even if it hurts their own economy.
The Netherlands has disproportionately large trade and financial flows with Moscow due to its position as an oil and commodities trading hub and an offshore base for companies.
Meanwhile, the plane's black box flight recorders, handed over by the rebels' leader, were flown from Ukraine on a Belgian military aircraft on Tuesday to Britain, where a team of experts examined the Cockpit Voice Recorder yesterday no evidence that it has been tampered with.
The flight data recorder is to be analysed today, the investigators said.
Church bells tolled as the planes carrying the remains arrived from Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, shortly before 4:00pm, and windmills around the low-lying coastal nation had been set in a mourning position - with the topmost sail fixed counter-clockwise from the vertical.
The remains of an unknown number of victims were transported in refrigerated rail carriages from the rebel-held part of Ukraine on Tuesday. Rutte has said that while some of the bodies may be identified immediately, it may take weeks or even months to complete the task.
Trains came to a stop as the country observed a minute's silence. No planes took off or landed at Schiphol Airport, from which the Malaysia Airlines flight departed, for 13 minutes around the time the bodies landed.
With so many of their countrymen dead, the Dutch have been taking a leading role in the international effort to recover and identify the bodies and investigate the cause of the crash.
Dutch authorities are leading the investigation, with extensive help from other countries.
Rutte, thrust into an unaccustomed spotlight, said on Tuesday the disaster had fundamentally changed the way the Dutch view Russia, urging the European Union to unite behind a firm approach to force Moscow to cooperate with the investigation.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has pledged to "do everything" to influence the separatists and ensure a full probe.
US intelligence officials have said they believe the rebels mistakenly shot down the doomed Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with a surface-to-air missile.
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.