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MH17: missing bodies spark anger

The arrival of a refrigerated train carrying bodies of MH17 victims was shrouded in secrecy, but confusion turned to outrage when it was revealed that almost 100 bodies are missing, reports Paul McGeough in Kharkiv.

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Kharkiv, Ukraine: The worst fears of the MH17 families and friends were realised last night when Dutch authorities revealed that there were only 200 bodies on the refrigerated train that pulled into this northern city on Tuesday – leaving almost 100 unaccounted for.

Jan Tuinder, the Dutch leader of the international investigation, said his team would begin an airlift of the bodies to Amsterdam on Wednesday. But the shocking revelation in the first detailed briefing since the train’s arrival was the uncertainty Mr Tuinder cast on a disaster in which all the grieving had, at least, been offered the consolation of the return of the body of their dead relatives and friends.

Only 200 bodies: Head of an international team of forensics experts, Jan Tuinder, pauses as he speaks during a press conference in Kharkiv.

Only 200 bodies: Head of an international team of forensics experts, Jan Tuinder, pauses as he speaks during a press conference in Kharkiv. Photo: AFP

"As far as we know at this moment we are talking about 200 victims, which means there are probably remains left in the area where this disaster took place," he said, speaking in English at a media briefing in a city hotel.

"We are not sure of that, but that's what I think at this moment. [But] certain is 200 victims that we are taking out."

The grim reality of the contents of the four Soviet-era chilled wagons that lumbered here from Torez, a community 15km from the crash scene, casts global criticism of the conduct of the search and recovery in the fields of the eastern Ukraine in a disturbing new light. It also utterly undermines the credibility of the Kiev government, which on Monday had given assurances that virtually all the passengers and crew had been accounted for.

Refrigerated trucks enter a military base in Hilversum, the Netherlands. The bodies of the victims killed in the Malaysia Airlines air crash in eastern Ukraine will be identified at the compound's army barracks after arrival.

Refrigerated trucks enter a military base in Hilversum, the Netherlands. The bodies of the victims killed in the Malaysia Airlines air crash in eastern Ukraine will be identified at the compound's army barracks after arrival. Photo: AFP

Prime Minister Tony Abbott's suggestion that international forces should take control of the 35 sq km crash scene will likely get serious consideration and support with the realisation that a huge new phase of the search for human remains is required given the new uncertainty that the remains of all of the 38 Australians onboard the Malaysian Airways flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur have been recovered.

A decision on Monday by the separatist rebels who control the crash scene to release the bodies and to hand over the black box flight data recorders was expected to ease rising international anger and consternation at the conduct of the crash investigation to date. Anger has centred on bodies being left in the humid summer heat for up to three days, and now for much longer given that 100 remain missing; the looting of baggage; and the failure to secure the scene, to protect evidence that will be vital for what will be a protracted investigation.

Also infuriation for the governments of the victims was the refusal by the separatists to give investigators free access to the site, which in places has been trampled as hundreds of well-meaning locals conducted a less-than-professional search.

Jan Tuinder in Kharkiv. The first bodies from the MH17 crash in Ukraine will be flown to the Netherlands - but others are missing.

Jan Tuinder in Kharkiv. The first bodies from the MH17 crash in Ukraine will be flown to the Netherlands - but others are missing. Photo: AFP

There were signs of renewed anger and resolve when the Dutch official Jan Tuinder became adamant, saying of those still missing: "They will be found. I know that we do have to go back to sweep the [crash] area. 

“It's an enormous area, we all know that. It's more than 14km in length, but we will not leave until every remain has left this country, so we will have to go on and bargain again with the people over there.”

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman on Monday said that 282 bodies and 87 fragments of another 16 bodies had been found. At a briefing for reporters in Kiev, he declared that all 298 deceased passengers had been loaded onto the train that was to haul them from separatist-controlled territory to this part of the country, which remains in government control.

When Mr Tuinder was asked about the discrepancy, he said: "The only thing I'm sure of is that I'm sure of the number 200. There is surely 200 corpses - that's the figure, that's the number."  

For now, he said, the priority was to return the bodies from the train to their home countries. But the victims would first be identified in the Netherlands and their remains were being repacked in body bags and stored in coffins for the airlift that would begin on Wednesday.

The Netherlands has declared Wednesday a national day of mourning for the 193 Dutch victims of the crash, with the first aircraft scheduled to arrive in the country in the late afternoon. King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima are to lead what inevitably will be an emotional reception of families and friends at Eindhoven Airport.

Once the train arrived at a railway siding in a former weapons factory south of downtown Kharkiv, an international team, including Australians, set about repacking the bodies in new body bags, which in turn were to be stored in wooden coffins for the flight to the Netherlands in a process that would likely start Wednesday. 

And dashing hopes that the victim bodies would be quickly dispersed to their home countries, a Dutch official said that ahead of repatriation there would be an identification process that “could take weeks or even months depending on the state of the bodies.”

When Fairfax Media asked if Kiev would go along with Mr Abbott’s suggestion that an international force be sent to secure the site, Mr Groysman dissembled, blaming the pro-Russian rebels for the slow repatriation of the bodies and for impeding a thorough search.

“Unfortunately, it has taken a long time for the train to get here from the crash site because of obstructions created by the bandits and terrorists,” he said, using Kiev’s stock term to describe the rebels who stand accused, along with their Russian sponsors, of bringing MH17 down with a missile strike.

Ordinarily, the train journey from Torez, to Kharkiv would be three or four hours, but the combined weight of separatist interference and creaking infrastructure dragged the journey out to 17 hours.