Press statement by Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, head of the repatriation mission

First I would like to sincerely thank all the parties who made it possible today for us to have access again to the crash site. This is important for us. We are aware that the parties involved have worked hard to make this happen.

Today the team of 70 Dutch and Australian experts set to work for the first time at the disaster site where flight MH17 crashed two weeks ago.

Under the leadership of the OSCE, the team left Donetsk at 07:20. They took the new, northern route to reach the site, the same route that the scouts used yesterday. The experts arrived at the disaster site at 11:30. After the short speech by the commander in that area, there was a minute of silence. Then the experts set immediately to work.

Today, the experts were able to recover some of the human remains. A number of personal belongings were also found at the disaster site. A search was made of the location that had been scouted out yesterday. This area is located in the small village of Grabovo, near a chicken farm. This is close to where the fuselage of the plane came to rest. Part of this area has been searched. In a moment I’ll point out the exact location with the help of some maps.

The work of the international police officers and experts at the disaster site is governed by certain protocols. These define two distinct roles: searchers, who comb through the area and mark important finds, and recovery workers, who wear protective clothing, including gloves. The other police officers perform tasks like moving recovered material and putting up fences.

In principle, everything found at the disaster site is first photographed. Then it is put into bags by the recovery workers. All bags are labelled and taken away on stretchers. Starting tomorrow, the human remains will be put into refrigerated train cars and taken to Kharkiv, the location of the air lift to the Netherlands.

In Kharkiv a team of Dutch, Australian and Malaysian DVI specialists stand ready to transfer the remains and personal belongings back to the Netherlands, following an initial forensic scan.

In the interest of clarity I would now like to say a bit more about the situation on the ground with the help of several maps, before turning to the subject of the results.

From two o'clock until four o'clock a team of 30 experts conducted a search near a poultry farm covering 5 x 5 metre areas. As has been said, this is a painstaking process. A number of human remains were found. The remains were all recovered and packed separately. They were then taken by the team’s ambulance to Soledar, where they will be stored in a refrigerated carriage.

In addition, many personal belongings were recovered. These too have all been packed separately, collected in large bags and taken away by the team. Everything will now be brought back to the Netherlands as quickly as possible via Kharkiv. We hope that the start of these activities and the recovery of these remains will bring some comfort to the families of the victims.

Over the past 24 hours the mission team has looked for a new location, because the crash site is easier to access from the north. We found this location in Soledar. This base will connect our main location in Kharkiv and the area being searched at the crash site. Soledor is nearly 90 km north-west of the crash site.

The repatriation team will stay in Soledar at the campus that has been made available by the Ukrainian authorities. The campus includes the school, a sports complex and a clinic that we will be able to use. Around 120 members of the repatriation team will sleep there tonight, including the team which worked today at the crash site. A sociomedical medical team will be on hand for the latter group, whose members will be allowed to rest tomorrow. These people have had to do an extremely tough job today and we are proud of their commitment and perseverance. They realise the importance of their work and the responsibility that rests on their shoulders.

As part of the further buildup of the mission, we expect to work tomorrow with four teams of 20 experts each. We will be at full strength on Sunday or Monday with five teams. In the days ahead we may be able to deploy divers and specially trained dogs.

Of course, as I said before, returning to the crash site depends on the outcome of negotiations with the OSCE and the security situation.

Tomorrow, the international police team and the forensic experts will travel from Soledar to the disaster site once again to continue with the search and recovery mission. It is not yet possible to indicate when our work at the site will be complete. This depends on the general circumstances and what we find there. It is expected that things will take at least several more weeks.

As I said, I am grateful to the parties concerned for making it possible to visit the disaster site. I hope we can continue working together in the days ahead, under the leadership of the OSCE.