KHARKIV, Ukraine — Two military aircraft carrying the first bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines crash left the embattled plains of eastern Ukraine Wednesday, while British investigators began work on a pair of “black boxes” to retrieve data on the flight’s last minutes.
Pro-Russian rebels shot down two Ukrainian fighter jets, Kiev’s defense ministry said, as fighting flared again in the east.
The Dutch government declared a day of national mourning as the country prepared for the arrival of the first bodies in the afternoon. The crash on Thursday killed all 298 people — most of them Dutch citizens — aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Ukraine and western nations are pressing the pro-Russian rebels who control the crash site to allow an unfettered an investigation, something Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would use his influence to achieve. Though confident that a missile brought down the aircraft, U.S. officials say Russia’s role remains unclear.
Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch said Wednesday that Dutch authorities had delivered the plane’s voice and data recorders to the agency’s base at Farnborough, southern England, where information will be downloaded. Experts will also check for signs of tampering.
Two military transport planes, one Dutch and one Australian, departed Ukraine at midday, heading for Eindhoven air base where the flights will be met by Dutch King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and hundreds of relatives.
For one grieving mother, the arrival of the bodies marked a new stage of mourning and brought to an end the pain of seeing television images of victims lying in the undulating fields or in body bags being loaded into a train.
“If I have to wait five months for identification, I can do it,” Silene Fredriksz-Hoogzand, whose son, Bryce, and his girlfriend Daisy Oehlers died in the crash, said before setting off for Eindhoven. “Waiting while the bodies were in the field and in the train was a nightmare.”
Dutch government spokesman Lodewijk Hekking said about 60 coffins were expected, but the number wasn’t immediately confirmed.
There was confusion as well about how many of the 282 corpses which the rebels said they have found were on the train which arrived in Kharkiv, a government-controlled city, on Tuesday.
Jan Tuinder, the Dutch official in charge of the international team dealing with the dead, said that at least 200 bodies were aboard the train and that more remains could be found once the body bags are examined fully.
The Dutch Safety Board announced that it will lead an international team of 24 investigators, and said unhindered access to the crash site — controlled by pro-Russian separatists — is critical.
“At the moment, there are no guarantees for the investigators’ safety” at the scene, the board said, adding that it “and other parties” are working to get access to the site and to secure it.
Rebel leader Pavel Gubarev wrote on his Facebook page that his men had retreated Wednesday from the villages of Chervona Zorya and Kozhevnya, which are on the Russian border about 45 kilometers (30 miles) from the scene of the crash. Gubarev said 30 rebels had been injured.
Wreckage of the Boeing 777 fell on territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists who have been battling the Kiev government since April. U.S. officials say the plane was probably shot down by a missile, most likely by accident.
The European Union on Tuesday imposed sanctions against more Russian individuals but refrained from targeting entire sectors of the Russian economy while waiting for clearer evidence of Moscow’s role in the disaster.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday that Russia was responsible for “creating the conditions” that led crash, but they offered no evidence of direct Russian government involvement.
The officials, who briefed reporters Tuesday under ground rules that their names not be used, said the plane was likely shot down by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The officials cited intercepts, satellite photos and social media postings by separatists, some of which have been authenticated by U.S. experts.
The intelligence officials were cautious in their assessment, noting that while the Russians have been arming separatists in eastern Ukraine, the U.S. had no direct evidence that the missile used to shoot down the passenger jet came from Russia.