AMSTERDAM (DPA) — Dutch and Australian military transport aircraft with 50 coffins on Wednesday left the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv for the Netherlands, transporting the first victims of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Both planes will land at the Eindhoven air base at 4 pm, where the coffins are to be received by victims' relatives, representatives of the 10 countries that the passengers and crew came from, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima.
The Dutch government declared a day of national mourning Wednesday when flags will be flown at half-staff. A bugle will be sounded to mark the arrival of the military planes, and a minute's silence will be observed at 4 pm when they land.
Church bells will ring across the Netherlands in the five minutes before the aircraft land.
There were 193 Dutch citizens on the Boeing 777-200 bound for Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam. All 298 passengers and crew were killed when MH17 went down Thursday over eastern Ukraine after being hit by a surface-to-air missile, according to the United States.
In Kharkiv, government representatives from Ukraine, the Netherlands, Malaysia and Australia attended a ceremony. After speeches and a minute of silence, the wooden coffins were loaded onto the aircraft by Ukrainian soldiers.
Many Kharkiv residents gathered at the airport to pay their respects, some of them carrying white banners that read: "Kharkiv is sympathizing."
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Gorysman said earlier that international experts were continuing their examinations of the remaining bodies, which were expected to be completed by Friday.
But it still wasn't clear how many bodies had been taken from the crash site to Kharkiv. On Tuesday, Rutte said reports of the number of bodies transported there ranged from 196 to 251.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Wednesday he feared the bodies of some Australians would never be returned home, as he expressed serious concern over the "unprofessional" manner in which the recovery of remains from the crash site was being conducted.
"Based on early inspection of the carriages in Kharkiv, we just don't know how many bodies we have," Abbott told reporters in Canberra.
"It's quite possible that many bodies are still out there in the open in the European summer, subject to interference and subject to the ravages of heat and animals," he said. "That is the predicament in which we find ourselves".
Pro-Russian separatists turned over the flight data and cockpit voice recorders Tuesday to Malaysian officials in rebel-held Donetsk. The rebels, who have been accused of downing the jet with a Russian missile, have yet to allow full access to the crash site so an investigation can begin, Malaysia said.
The Malaysians subsequently handed over the recorders to Dutch authorities. The Netherlands has taken the lead in the international investigation of the crash.
The Dutch Safety Board on Wednesday delivered the recorders to the Air Accidents Investigation Branch in Farnborough, southern England, British authorities confirmed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called on the Ukraine government, which has been fighting separatists since April in regions bordering Russia, to "observe the basic norms of decency" and implement a truce while investigators examine the crash site.
He said Russia would use its influence with the rebels to pave the way for a full inquiry into the crash.
Meanwhile, the foreign ministers of the European Union ordered a new round of sanctions against Russia to be drawn up by Thursday.
The package would be implemented if Russia does not offer "full and immediate cooperation" by using its influence with the rebels to ensure access to the site and by stopping cross-border arms traffic, the ministers said.
"This terrible incident happened in the first place because of Russia's support to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, because of the flow of heavy weapons from Russia into eastern Ukraine," British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said.
The EU has so far shied away from tough economic sanctions over fears of repercussions for its own economy. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said those concerns were now secondary.