EINDHOVEN, Netherlands – Victims of the Malaysian jetliner shot down over Ukraine returned at last Wednesday to Dutch soil in 40 wooden coffins, solemnly and gently carried to 40 identical hearses, flags at half-staff flapping in the wind.
The carefully choreographed, nearly silent ceremony contrasted sharply with the boom of shells and shattered glass in eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian rebels fought to hang onto territory and shot down two Ukrainian fighter jets. The bold new attack showed the separatists are not shying away from shooting at the skies despite international outrage and grief at the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Even though they are still unidentified, the corpses that arrived on two military transport planes in Eindhoven were embraced by a nation unmoored by the loss of so many people caught in someone else’s faraway war.
Boys going to visit their grandparents, a flight attendant hurrying to get home, and a bouncer heading to see his sweetheart were among the 298 victims of the jetliner that was blown out of the sky on July 17, intensifying anger at the separatists suspected of bringing it down with a surface-to-air missile.
Nearly a week later, international investigators still don’t have unfettered access to the crash site, some remains have yet to be recovered, and armed men roam the region, defying their government.
Investigators in a lab in southern England began studying the plane’s “black boxes” Wednesday in hopes of learning about the Boeing 777’s final minutes. The Dutch Safety Board, which has taken control of the investigation, said the cockpit voice recorder suffered damage but showed no sign of manipulation, and its recordings were intact. Specialists will start studying the flight data recorder Thursday.
Families of passengers moved to a new stage of grief as the bodies began arriving in the Netherlands, the country that bore the heaviest death toll.
The families had spent days agonizing in wait while their loved ones’ remains lay in sweltering fields in eastern Ukraine before being gradually shifted by truck, train and plane.
“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.”
On a day of national mourning, flags flew at half-staff on Dutch government buildings and family homes around this nation of 17 million.
Church bells rang out around the country as the Dutch and Australian military transport planes taxied to a standstill. King Willem-Alexander clasped the hand of his wife, Queen Maxima, as the couple grimly watched uniformed pallbearers 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.
Then as the last hearses drove away, applause briefly broke out. Along the route, there was more applause from people gathered along the roadsides. Some tossed flower petals at the motorcade.
From the airport, they drove under military police escort to the central city of Hilversum where forensic experts waited at a military barracks to carry out the painstaking task of identifying the remains. Prime Minister Mark Rutte says many bodies could be identified quickly, but some families may have to wait weeks.
Two more planeloads of victims will be flown Thursday to Eindhoven to a similar ceremony, the Dutch government said.
The rebels, undeterred, fought to hold onto territory and said they attacked two Ukrainian air force jets in the same area where the passenger plane fell.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said the Su-25s were shot about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of the wreckage from the Malaysian jet. The separatist group Donetsk People’s Republic said on its website that one of the pilots was killed and another was being sought by rebel fighters.
The attack revived questions about the rebels’ weapons capabilities — and how much support and training they are getting from Russia. The U.S. accuses Russia of backing the separatists and fueling Ukraine’s conflict, which has brought Russia’s relations with the West and key trading partners in Europe to a two-decade low.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the downing of the fighter jets “speaks to the pattern we’ve seen over the last several weeks, which is Russian-backed separatists armed with Russian anti-aircraft posing risk to aircraft in Ukraine.”
Rhodes added: “The only aircraft they’re not taking responsibility for is MH-17,” referring to the Malaysian jetliner.
He said the U.S. believes it has a “pretty clear case” that responsibility for downing the Malaysian plane lies with the Russian-backed separatists. He acknowledged that the U.S. does not know who “pulled the trigger” and said that would be the hardest thing to determine.
While the insurgents deny having missiles capable of hitting a jetliner at cruising altitude, rebel leader Alexander Borodai has said his fighters do have Strela-10M missile systems, which are capable of hitting targets up to an altitude of 3,500 meters (11,500 feet). They have shoulder-fired missiles with a smaller range.
The rebels also say they shot down an Antonov-26 early last week with a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile. The Kiev government is hinting that the Antonov was flying too high for the rebels to hit it, suggesting Russian involvement.
Rebel leader Pavel Gubarev wrote on his Facebook page that 30 rebels were injured and his men retreated from the villages of Chervona Zorya and Kozhevnya, on the Russian border about 45 kilometers (30 miles) from the sunflower fields where the Malaysia Airlines plane fell.
The battles are complicating the investigation into the passenger jet crash.
Ukraine and Western nations are pressing the rebels who control the crash site to allow an unfettered investigation, something Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would use his influence to achieve. Though confident that a missile brought down the passenger jet, U.S. officials say Russia’s role remains unclear. Russia denies involvement.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf laid direct responsibility on Putin.
“These Russian separatists, who we strongly believe fired this missile, would not be there operating without the support of President Putin and the Russian government, would not have been trained without the support of President Putin and the Russian government, would not be armed without the support of President Putin and the Russian government,” she said. “They would not be there doing what they’re doing, period, so they could fire an SA-11, without the support of President Putin and the Russian government.”
The Dutch Safety Board, which is leading an international team of 24 investigators, said unhindered access to the crash site was critical.
Spokesman Tjibbe Joustra told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that about 25 investigators are in Kiev analyzing photos, satellite images and radar information, but have not yet gained access to the crash site.
Body parts were still seen at the crash site Wednesday, said Michael Bociurkiw, spokesman for the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. He also described “significant puncture marks to the fuselage, almost a piercing mark.”
Independent military analysts said the size, spread, shape and number of shrapnel impacts visible in an AP photograph of a piece of the wreckage all point to a missile system like the SA-11 Buk.
U.S. analysts have also concluded that an SA-11 was the likely weapon.
Konrad Muzyka, an analyst at IHS Jane’s, said the high number of shrapnel holes in the debris meant that only a fragmentary warhead like the SA-11 could have been used. The fact the shrapnel holes are folded inwards confirmed that the explosion came from outside the plane, he added.
Justin Bronk, military sciences research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said “the size of shrapnel holes is fairly broad, in keeping with what you would expect from a large missile like the SA-11.”
Residents in the rebel-held city of Donetsk swept up broken glass and tried to repair apartments damaged from shelling in recent days.
“The solution I see is to stop shooting. Then Europe and Russia should step in to help start talks,” said resident Alexander Litvinenko. “Nothing will be resolved by force.”
Chernov contributed from Snizhne, Ukraine. Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, Matthew Lee and Julie Pace in Washington and Jona Kallgren in Kharkiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.