EINDHOVEN, Netherlands — A week after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over war-torn eastern Ukraine, dozens more coffins containing the remains of victims arrived Thursday in the Netherlands.
Planes carrying the remains of as many as 74 people touched down at a military base in Eindhoven.
They follow the first 40 wooden caskets, which were flown in Wednesday and greeted by somber, moving tributes across the country. A lone bugler sounding the traditional military farewell “Last Post” marked that arrival, followed by a moment of silence.
The grieving nation is mourning those killed, caught in a war in which they had no part. Of the 298 people from more than 10 countries who died aboard Flight 17, 193 were Dutch citizens.
The plane was downed last week by a suspected surface-to-air missile over eastern Ukraine, where groups of pro-Russian rebels are battling Ukrainian government forces.
Rebels claimed responsibility for shooting down two Ukrainian military jets Wednesday. The rebels have denied that they brought down Flight 17, rejecting accusations from Ukrainian and U.S. officials.
At the same time, Russian troops near the border with Ukraine have broken up into smaller groups and moved closer to the border, according to two U.S. officials.
An operation to transfer the victims’ remains is expected to be completed by Friday, Norwegian officials said.
Uncertainty remains about how many bodies have been recovered from the crash site and transported by train to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, from where they are being flown to Eindhoven.
Work to identify them may take weeks or even months, according to the Dutch government.
The honors afforded the remains in the Netherlands contrast sharply with how they were first treated — allowed to remain exposed to the elements for days. In some cases, Dutch officials say, the victims were stripped of their personal belongings.
It’s unclear exactly how many bodies were inside the caskets being transported to the Netherlands, how many have been removed from the crash site and how many might remain there.
Malaysian official Mohd Sakri, who traveled on the train that carried remains from the crash site to Kharkiv, said there were 282 corpses and 87 body parts aboard — the same tally Ukrainian officials earlier gave for what was recovered from the crash site.
But Dutch investigators only confirmed there were at least 200 bodies transported from the crash site, said Jan Tuinder, head of the Dutch delegation.
Another Dutch official said investigators were still going through the train cars and it was possible that all the crash victims were on the train.
Officials said Monday that the bodies of at least 16 people were still unaccounted for. Their remains may still be scattered across a debris field spanning several miles.
As they combed the crash site Wednesday, monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Malaysian experts searched for human remains.
“There’s a lot of heavy debris still out there,” spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said, “and we’re not quite sure what could be underneath.”
‘Black boxes’ in the UK
It took days for Ukrainian rebels who control the area of the crash site to hand over the bodies and the airliner’s black boxes to Malaysian officials.
The voice and flight data recorders are now in Britain for what will be a detailed scouring by international analysts that could take weeks. On Wednesday, investigators found that the cockpit voice recorder was damaged, but its memory was intact. There was no sign of tampering.
But Dutch crash investigators leading the inquiry said Wednesday they still don’t have everything they need and haven’t been able to visit the crash site under safe conditions to carry out their work.
Australia has sent 50 police officials to London in advance of their joining a possible international deployment to eastern Ukraine to secure the crash site, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Thursday.
Did rebels have missile system?
Accusations continue to fly over who was responsible for shooting down Flight 17.
One pro-Russian rebel commander further complicated the picture by appearing to acknowledge that rebels had in their possession the type of surface-to-air missile system that U.S. officials say was used to bring down Flight 17.
Since the crash a week ago, rebel leaders have repeatedly denied that they had an SA-11, or Buk missile system, at their disposal. They have accused Ukrainian government forces of bringing down the passenger jet.
But in an interview with the news agency Reuters, Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of the Vostok Battalion in Donetsk, said he knew about the missile system.
“I knew that a BUK came from Luhansk. At the time I was told that a BUK was coming from Luhansk under the flag of the LNR,” Khodakovsky told Reuters, making a reference to the Luhansk People’s Republic, the principal rebel group in Luhansk.
Luhansk is one of two rebel provinces in eastern Ukraine. The other, Donetsk, is where Flight 17 came down.
“I found out about it when I found out that this tragedy happened. Most likely it was brought back in order to conceal the evidence of its presence,” Khodakovsky said in the Reuters interview, which took place Tuesday and was published Wednesday.
He accused the Ukrainian government of provoking “usage of this kind of weapon against a plane with civilians which was flying by.”
But Russian media later reported that Khodakovsky later denied that he confirmed that rebels had the missile system, saying his comments were taken out of context. He told the news outlet RT that he was only discussing theories with Reuters and that he did not have information on such a weapon. Reuters said it is sticking by its story.
U.S. officials say pro-Russian rebels were responsible for shooting down Flight 17, but they say they now believe it’s likely the rebels didn’t know it was a commercial airliner, according to U.S. intelligence officials.