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Officials: Rebels hinder effort to recover bodies from MH17 crash site

By Alan Duke, CNN
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Officials claim rebels ban workers from searching for more bodies
  • Dutch PM says he hopes site can be made safe enough for search to resume Friday
  • A train carries 282 bodies and 87 body parts from the crash site
  • 298 people died aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 a week ago

(CNN) -- The transfer from Ukraine to the Netherlands of remains of victims of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 shootdown is expected to be completed by Saturday, the Dutch prime minister said Thursday.

Two military cargo planes landed in the Netherlands with dozens of coffins Thursday evening, a day after the same planes made the first delivery from Ukraine.

While 203 body bags have been transferred from the crash site in war-torn eastern Ukraine, "that doesn't really tell us that much about the exact number of victims that have been collected," Prime Minister Mark Rutte said a news conference Thursday evening.

"The chance is still very great that there are still victims at the crash site," Rutte said.

For the Dutch, a day of mourning

While investigators examine body bags in a fourth and final refrigerated train car parked in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, officials accused pro-Russian rebels who control the crash area of banning recovery workers Thursday from searching for more bodies.

Monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and experts from Malaysia want to continue searching a debris field spanning several miles 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."

Sergey Bochkovskiy, the head of Ukraine's State Emergency Services, said Thursday that "terrorists" cut off access to the area after the train carrying remains from the crash site to Kharkiv left the crash site.

"You call them terrorists, we call them culprits, as they do not give us access to the site," said Jan Tuinder, head of the Dutch police team.

However, CNN's Phil Black was with a small team of OSCE monitors and Malaysian and Australian investigators being escorted by pro-Russian separatists into the debris field.

Bociurkiw said the group saw at least two bodies among the debris. Black reported there appeared to be no effort at that time to retrieve the corpses.

Of the 298 people who died aboard Flight 17, 193 were Dutch citizens.

Malaysian official Mohd Sakri, who traveled on the train, said there were 282 bodies and 87 body parts aboard -- the same tally Ukrainian officials earlier gave for what was recovered from the crash site.

Rutte said his country would send more experts to Ukraine in the hope the crash site can be made safe enough for a resumption of the search Friday. The 40 Dutch military police are not armed because they are "not there to shoot people, but to help find victims."

Planes carrying the remains of as many as 74 people touched down at a military base in Eindhoven, Netherlands, on Thursday. 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.

Work to identify the remains may take weeks or even months, according to the Dutch government. At least 200 international experts are in the Netherlands to help make the identifications, Rutte said.

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.

Flight 17 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. The rebels have denied that they brought down the commercial airliner, rejecting accusations from Ukrainian and U.S. officials.

Ukrainian PM, Cabinet resign as MH17 remains arrive in Netherlands

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CNN's Nick Paton Walsh in Kharkiv contributed to this report.

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