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Planes carrying MH17 victims land in the Netherlands

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Vince Chadwick in Eindhoven and Nick Miller in Kiev

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MH17 victims arrive in Netherlands

Sombre scenes at Eindhoven Airport as 40 coffins containing MH17 victims arrive in the Netherlands, where a national day of mourning has been declared.

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When the engines stopped on the two giant transport planes just before 4pm, the silence at Eindhoven Airport was broken only by the soft clinking of flagpoles, one for each of the 17 nations who lost a citizen on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

Forty bodies from the downed jet were brought here just after 4pm local time in an Australian C-17 Globemaster carrying 24 coffins, and a Dutch plane carrying 16 coffins, 

Dutch military men carry coffins containing the bodies of MH17 victims during a ceremony at Eindhoven Airbase after a Hercules transport plane landed from Ukraine.

Dutch military men carry coffins containing the bodies of MH17 victims during a ceremony at Eindhoven Airbase after a Hercules transport plane landed from Ukraine.

They are the first recovered passengers of the 298 who flew from Amsterdam in a Malaysia-bound jet most likey brought down by a surface-to-air missile, probably fired by pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine.

Wednesday is a day of national mourning in the Netherlands, which lost 193 people among the passengers and crew who perished when MH17 was shot down. Thirty-seven Australian citizens and permanent residents perished on MH17. 

Awaiting the dead were about 1000 friends and relatives, including Australians, who witnessed the ceremony on the other side of a black fence, away from the world's media.

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima (centre) mark the return of MH17 victims at Eindhoven.

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima (centre) mark the return of MH17 victims at Eindhoven. Photo: Phil Nijhuis

They were joined by the Dutch Prime Minister and royal family, and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove.

The coffins containing the victims' remains were then driven in a 40-hearse column on a highway closed to other traffic to a military base near the town of Hilversum, to be identified by forensics experts.

At the same time, around the Netherlands church bells rang as people paused to mark the return of the first MH17 victims on the first national day of mourning since 1962. That occasion, the death of Queen Wilhemina, seems dwarfed by this. 

They stayed motionless for five minutes.

They stayed motionless for five minutes. Photo: Nick Miller

The ramp doors opened and the Last Post played before the hearses lined up between the two planes. It took 90 minutes for all 40 caskets to be carried away with the short rhythmic steps of the eight pallbearers never advancing more than one foot at a time.

"We've seen the most solemn, moving ceremony where today 40 people were brought from a very difficult place into the embrace of a people who mean them well," Sir Peter told Australian media afterwards.

"We were thinking to ourselves, 'is this person in this casket an Australian?' So today they were all Australians and they were all Dutch and all of the other nations."

Meanwhile, in front of the Netherlands embassy in Kiev, a tearful vigil marked the moment that the first bodies from MH17 landed at Eindhoven

Just before 5pm, local time, more than 30 embassy staff walked in a line to stand in front of the field of flowers, candles, soft toys and messages of condolence that the locals have been leaving here over the last five days.

They stood facing the flowers in silence, hands clasped or by their sides, as bumblebees buzzed through the fading blooms.

One staff member, his jaw clenched with grief, sought his partner’s hand to hold in support.

The Dutch ambassador to the Ukraine, Kees Klompenhouwer, stood stoically, his face set.

For five minutes they stayed motionless, until at a signal they wordlessly walked back inside, in the knowledge that their countrymen had arrived on home soil.

A Dutch church group then moved forward to lay red roses on the pile.

Young women in the 14-strong group, from the Reformed Church in the town of Ede, were overcome with grief and sobbed during the ceremony.

Another group member said many of them were once removed from the tragedy, knowing people who had lost a friend or family member.

But they had a lucky escape: their reverend at the church had been on the MH17 flight the day before the tragedy.

“It’s been an emotional time,” said Johan Vermij, 40. “We left [for Ukraine] on Friday just after we heard the news.

“Ukraine people have been very warm. Everyone says sorry to us.

“We have been praying.”

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman from the Australian High Commission in London said "Australian federal police investigations, intelligence and forensics specialists are working with the international community and australian forensics, and Disaster Victim Identification specialists are standing by in the Netherlands to assist with the DVI process."

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