The remains of 74 more people who died when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down in eastern Ukraine last week returned to the Netherlands on Friday.
In the third solemn ceremony in as many days, two military transport planes carried the bodies from Ukraine to Eindhoven airfield. From there, the bodies will travel to a Dutch military base where a forensic team will attempt to identify them.
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The Boeing 777 went down July 17 as it headed to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, killing all 298 people on board. U.S. and Ukrainian officials say it was shot down, likely by mistake, by a missile fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are fighting Ukrainian government forces.
Of the dead, 194 were Dutch citizens and 37 were Australian citizens or residents. Both countries' governments have expressed determination to see the dead brought home and the crash investigated.
As the bodies returned Friday, the Dutch Safety Board announced it expects to publish the "initial factual findings" of its investigation into the downing of Flight MH17 by as early as the end of next week.
Spokeswoman Sara Vernooij says the initial findings will outline how the investigation will proceed, in terms of "what can we rule out? What are we going to focus on?"
Dutch Safety Board investigators are also set to visit the wreckage site in eastern Ukraine in the coming days.
Their aim is "verification of information already gathered from other sources, to search for possible new information and possibly collect relevant material for the investigation such as certain pieces of wreckage," the board said in a written statement.
Meanwhile, at the crash site near Donetsk, a small group of Dutch and Australian investigators walked the sprawling, unsecured site where the Boeing 777 went down as their governments prepared police detachments that will try to protect the crash area and help bring the last of the victims home.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his country was ready to send 40 unarmed military police to rebel-controlled eastern Ukraine to help investigators, while Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said his government is close to a deal to send police. Australia has 90 federal police officers standing by in Europe.
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"This will be a police-led humanitarian mission," Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in Kharkiv, where more remains were placed on flights to the Netherlands on Friday for identification and investigation. "And there will be body identification experts, forensic experts. And of course we will ensure that they are safe, that they will have protection.”
No plan for a large-scale deployment of experts and security personnel had been announced Friday, however, and the site remained largely unsecured. Four Australian and three Dutch investigators walked among the widely-scattered plane parts past two grazing cows near the village of Hrabove on a warm summer day. The investigators were accompanied by observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Ukrainian soldiers come under fire
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian army claimed that soldiers came under artillery fire from the Russian side of the border overnight and were attacked by rebels in several other places in the restive east.
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Ukrainian forces are trying to close in on the rebels, cutting them off from the border with Russia which Kyiv believes is the source of arms and reinforcement. Moscow has vehemently denied a role in the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and government troops which has left more than 400 people dead and displaced tens of thousands.
In a statement on Friday, the headquarters of the government's military operation in the east listed at least seven locations where rebels attacked Ukrainian troops. They also claimed that attacks on two locations including a border crossing were supported by artillery fire from Russia.
Russia said Ukrainian also fired into its territory. Around 40 mortar shells fired by Ukrainian forces fell in Russia’s Rostov province near the Ukrainian border, a Russian official told the state Ria Novosti news agency.
Late on Thursday, Ukrainian troops entered the town of Lysychansk, which has been in rebel hands for several months, the military press office said. Rebels on Friday morning admitted in comments carried by Interfax that they had to flee the town which is 70 kilometres northwest of the regional capital Luhansk.