Two military aircraft carrying the first bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines crash left the embattled plains of eastern Ukraine 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.
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.
Two military transport planes, one Dutch and one Australian, departed at midday, heading for Eindhoven air base, to be met by Dutch King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and hundreds of relatives.
Dutch government spokesman Lodewijk Hekking said about 60 coffins were expected, but the number wasn't immediately confirmed. There was 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.
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.
Senior U.S. 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 U.S. experts.
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.