Family members of the victims killed in the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 plane disaster react as a row of hearses carrying the victims' bodies arrives at the Korporaal van Oudheusden barracks in Hilversum on Wednesday. Michael Kooren/Reuters
The first of the bodies of people who died in the Malaysian Airlines MH17 tragedy have been returned to the Netherlands, honoured by a moment of silence, and Dutch soldiers, dignitaries and grieving family members.
Two military aircraft, one from the Netherlands carrying 16 bodies and the others from Australia carrying 24, touched down at the Eindhoven air base around 3:50 p.m. local time.
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- WATCH | Dutch victims' families share grief, anger
Of the 298 people killed when the Boeing 777 was downed in Eastern Ukraine last Thursday, 193 were Dutch.
The solemn service on Wednesday contrasted sharply with ongoing turmoil in Eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military continued to clash. Two Ukrainian fighter jets were shot down in the region, according to a spokesman for Ukraine's military operations, who added that preliminary information shows the missiles were fired from Russia.
Pro-Russian rebels denied those reports, insisting they brought the fighter jets down themselves.
In the Netherlands, wellwishers laid flowers on a growing pile and signed a condolence book at the airport as the first plane made its descent. Flags from every country the victims hailed from — including Canada's, for 24-year-old Andrei Anghel — flew at half-mast on the tarmac.
It’s unclear if Anghel, from Ajax, Ont., was on one of the planes. Anghel's sister, Lexi, told CBC News her family is still devastated by the loss and isn't planning to travel to the Netherlands at this time.
Dutch soldiers dressed in dark blue uniforms marched into place and saluted before taking the caskets off the planes and loading them into hearses.
Dutch King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima, Prime Minister Mark Rutte were on hand.
King Willem-Alexander clasped his wife's hand as the couple grimly watched teams carry the coffins slowly from the planes to a fleet of waiting hearses. Almost the only sound was of boots marching across the ground and flags flapping in the wind.
The CBC’s Tom Parry, reporting from the Eindhoven, said the bodies would be moved to Hilversum military base, about 100 kilometres away, where forensics teams will begin identifying them.
Dutch officials have warned grieving family members that it could take months before the bodies are identified.
"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.
"Waiting while the bodies were in the field and in the train was a nightmare."
Malaysian officials gather more info
Earlier in Ukraine, CBC senior correspondent Susan Ormiston said it was an emotional scene as an honour guard loaded the bodies onto transport planes, restoring some of the dignity that was lost as they sat for days in plastic bags on a refrigerated train.
At the site of the downed plane, Malaysian officials returned to gather more information, but concerns remained that Ukrainian crews cutting into the plane’s wrecked fuselage with power saws could be tampering with evidence, Ormiston said, noting that people have seen carrying parts of the plane away.
In Britain, officials confirmed the two black boxes, were delivered. The flight recorders are set to be analyzed by the Air Accidents Investigations Branch, a lab certified by the International Civil Aviation Organization in southern England.
Ukraine and western nations are pressing the pro-Russian rebels who control the crash site to allow an unfettered an investigation, something Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would use his influence to achieve. Though confident that a missile brought down the aircraft, U.S. officials say Russia's role remains unclear.
Confusion over body count
There had been confusion as well 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.
- PHOTOS | Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crash site images
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 Kyiv government since April. U.S. officials say the plane was probably shot down by a missile, most likely by accident.
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.
Investigators in a lab in southern England began studying the plane's black box recorders Wednesday in hopes of finding clues to what happened. The Dutch Safety Board, which has taken control of the investigation, said the voice recorder suffered damage but showed no sign of manipulation, and its recordings were intact. Specialists will start studying the flight data recorder Thursday.
U.S. finds no direct link to Russia
Senior U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that Russia was responsible for "creating the conditions" that led to the shooting down of the plane, but they offered no evidence of direct Russian government involvement.
The intelligence officials were cautious in their assessment, noting that while the Russians have been arming separatists in eastern Ukraine, the U.S. had no direct evidence that the missile used to shoot down the passenger jet came from Russia.
The plane was likely shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the intelligence officials said, citing intercepts, satellite photos and social media postings by separatists, some of which have been authenticated by U.S. experts.
But the officials said they did not know who fired the missile or whether any Russian operatives were present at the missile launch. They were not certain that the missile crew was trained in Russia, although they described a stepped-up campaign in recent weeks by Russia to arm and train the rebels, which they say has continued even after the downing of the commercial jetliner.
Despite the fuzziness of some details, however, the intelligence officials said the case that the separatists were responsible for shooting down the plane was solid. Other scenarios — such as that the Ukrainian military shot down the plane — are implausible, they said. No Ukrainian surface-to-air missile system was in range.
From satellites, sensors and other intelligence gathering, officials said, they know where the missile originated — in separatist-held territory — and what its flight path was. But if they possess satellite or other imagery of the missile being fired, they did not release it Tuesday. A graphic they made public depicts their estimation of the missile's flight path with a green line. The jet's flight path was available from air traffic control data.
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