KIEV: A plane carrying remains of victims from downed flight MH17 arrived in The Netherlands on Monday as Malaysian experts joined the international probe at the crash site in eastern Ukraine.
The Dutch military transport plane carried a single coffin filled with human remains that Ukraine said had been found in the search operation in recent days, as well as DNA and belongings that had been kept in the rebel-held city of Donetsk for some time.
Before Monday’s flight, 227 coffins had been taken to The Netherlands, which suffered the most casualties in the July 17 crash, for the painstaking identification process.
A total 298 passengers and crew were killed when the Malaysia Airlines jet — flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur — was blown out of the sky almost three weeks ago.
The United States says insurgents shot down the plane with a surface-to-air missile likely supplied by Russia, but Moscow and the rebels blame the Ukrainian military.
On Monday, Malaysian experts also joined Dutch and Australian police for the first time as they continued combing the area for traces of the victims.
The probe into the crash — the second plane disaster involving Malaysia Airlines this year — has been repeatedly delayed because of fighting in the region between government forces and pro-Moscow separatist fighters.
Shooting could still be heard as the team arrived and the experts were briefly prevented from accessing the rebel-held site although they were eventually let through.
“Today’s situation illustrates once more that this mission is conducted in a contested area, where parties involved are still fighting. Access to the crash site is never 100-percent guaranteed,” the head of the Dutch police mission in Ukraine, Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, said in a statement.
Over 100 investigators from The Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia searched with sniffer dogs in and around the village of Petropavlivka on Monday, recovering personal belongings from the crash site, including photo albums and passports.
With the Malaysian experts joining the probe for the first time, a short memorial service for the more than 40 Malaysian victims, including the crew, was held at the site, Aalbersberg said.
“Our nations’ shared grief strengthens our combined efforts,” he added.
The experts did not complete their search and planned to have another go at the same location and to the north of the crash site on Tuesday “if the security situation permits it”, he said.
In a statement posted on his Facebook page, Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai vowed Monday that arrangements to repatriate the bodies of its citizens killed in the crash would be made “once bodies have been identified and the necessary forensic work completed”.
“Efforts to locate and identify victims of the MH17 tragedy continue,” he added, noting that a national day of mourning would be organised once all remains of the Malaysian victims have returned home.