Sergei Chuzavkov, Associated Press
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 around eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian rebels fought Wednesday to hang onto territory — and shot down two Ukrainian fighter jets. The bold new attack showed they 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 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 in a hurry to get home, a bouncer heading to see his sweetheart were among the 298 victims of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, whose downing last week has intensified anger at the pro-Russian rebels suspected of bringing the plane down.
Nearly a week later, international investigators still don't have unfettered access to the area, some remains are unrecovered, and armed men roam, defying their government.
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.
Families of passengers moved to a new stage of grieving as the corpses started arriving in the Netherlands, the country that bore the heaviest death toll in the crash.
The families had spent days agonizing in wait while body parts decayed in sweltering Ukrainian fields before being gradually shifted by truck, train and plane to the Netherlands.
"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 planes taxied to a standstill. King Willem-Alexander clasped his wife Queen Maxima'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.
Then as the last hearses drove away, applause briefly broke out.
From the airport, they were driven under military police escort to the central city of Hilversum where forensic experts were waiting at a military barracks to carry out the painstaking task of identifying the remains. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte says many bodies could be identified quickly and returned to their loved ones, but some families may have to wait weeks for a positive identification.
The rebels, undeterred, fought Wednesday to hold onto territory in eastern Ukraine 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.
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