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Dutch mourn first MH17 bodies flown to Netherlands

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Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images

Two aircraft carrying the remains of some of the 298 passengers who died on flight MH17 touched down at an airport in the Dutch city of Eindhoven on Wednesday, as next-of-kin and Dutch and foreign officials looked on.

The remains of the victims of the downing of the flight over eastern Ukraine, 193 of whom were Dutch, will be brought over the next few days to a military base in Hilversum, the Netherlands.

Experts will work to put names to the bodies, a process that could take months.

Netherlands pays respect

Bells peeled and flags flew at half mast across the Netherlands on Wednesday on a day of grief tinged with anger ahead of the arrival of the first bodies of victims from a Malaysian airliner downed over Ukraine last week on a flight from Amsterdam.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte led the first National Day of Mourning since the death of wartime Queen Wilhelmina in 1962 in memory of the 298 people killed when flight MH17 crashed in an area of eastern Ukraine held by Russian-backed separatists.

Amid U.S. accusations that the rebels shot the civilian plane down in error with a Russian-supplied missile, an opinion poll showed an overwhelming majority of the Dutch want economic sanctions imposed on Moscow, even if it hurts their own economy.

Windmills around this low-lying coastal nation were set in a mourning position and church bells will toll just before the first military transport planes carrying the remains arrive from Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine.

The two planes took off from Kharkiv carrying 40 plain wooden coffins after a brief solemn ceremony. The remains of an unknown number of victims were transported in refrigerated rail carriages from the rebel-held part of Ukraine on Tuesday.

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With 193 of the dead from the Netherlands, Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said almost every family in the country of 15 million knew someone who died or their relatives, contributing to a national mood of shock and grief.

"Think of all the people who were flying away on holiday, all the young people who had just finished their final school exams," said Jikkie van der Giessen from Amsterdam.

"They were looking fully toward the future and then you're shot down. Whether it was an accident or on purpose, the fact is it's horrible," she said.

While many of the passengers on the flight to Kuala Lumpur were tourists, at least six were AIDS experts on their way to a conference in Melbourne, Australia on the deadly disease.

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Bells will toll for 10 minutes and a trumpet salute will sound as the first coffins are unloaded before relatives of the victims and dignitaries including King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima and prime minister Rutte.

Representatives of the many countries whose citizens died in the crash will be present, including the governor-general of Australia, Peter Cosgrove.

Trains will come to a stop for a minute at 4 p.m. as the country observes a minute's silence, Dutch Railways said. No planes will take off or land at Schiphol Airport, from which the Malaysian Airlines flight departed, for 13 minutes around the time the bodies land.

A silent memorial rally was planned outside the royal palace in Amsterdam's Dam square on Wednesday evening.

Dutch in lead

With so many of their countrymen dead, the Dutch have been taking a leading role in the international effort to recover and identify the bodies and investigate the cause of the crash.

Dutch authorities are leading the investigation, with extensive help from other countries. The plane's black box flight recorders, handed over by the rebels' leader, were flown from Ukraine on a Belgian military plane on Tuesday to Britain, where a team of experts will examine them.

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From Eindhoven, the bodies will be driven in a convoy of hearses to a military barracks near the town of Hilversum, where forensics experts will begin the painstaking work of putting names to the bodies, a process which could take months.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it was unclear how many bodies had been transported to Kharkiv and how may have been left behind at the crash site.

Rutte, thrust into an unaccustomed spotlight, said on Tuesday the disaster had fundamentally changed the way the Dutch view Russia, urging the European Union to unite behind a firm approach to force Moscow to cooperate with the probe.