The European Union inched towards introducing economic sanctions against Vladimir Putin's Russian "cronies" over the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 today, as the bodies of the dead were finally released by Ukrainian separatist rebels. EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed "concrete proposals" to draw up a list of the Russian president's associates who would be subject to punitive measures, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said.
The first names will be considered at a meeting on Thursday, where ministers will also look at broader sanctions such as arms embargoes and access to capital and hi-tech goods. The announcement came after Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte announced that a train carrying some of the 298 passengers and crew killed last Thursday - which included 10 Britons - had arrived in the Ukrainian government-controlled city of Kharkiv.
The first bodies are due to be repatriated by air to the Netherlands tomorrow, he said. Interpol said its team had started preliminary attempts to identify passengers from MH17, which was apparently shot down by Russia-backed separatists as it flew from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to Kuala Lumpur.
Prime Minister David Cameron announced Britain's Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) is to retrieve data from the flight recorders for "international analysis" after a request from the Dutch government. Speaking after the meeting of EU ministers, Mr Hammond said: "What I have heard today is a clear political commitment by the foreign ministers in response to this outrage to act.
"I would expect to see that process now moving forward at pace unless the Russians deliver on all the demands we have made. The cronies of Mr Putin and his clique in the Kremlin are the people who have to bear the pressure because it is only them feeling the pressure that will in turn put pressure on the Russian government.
"If the financial interests of the group around the leadership are affected the leadership will know about it." Asked about the French sale of helicopter carriers to Russia, he said: "This is a question for the French government to look at." This afternoon Mr Rutte said: "As soon as the aircraft lands at Eindhoven Airport, the victims will be transported to the Korporaal van Oudheusden barracks in Hilversum, and once a positive identification has been made, the immediate next step will be to inform the next of kin - no one else.
"This may happen rapidly, but I have to caution you that it could also take weeks or even months." He added that the Netherlands would lead the investigation into the shooting down of MH17 at the request of the Ukrainian government. He added: "Our next priority is investigating the cause of the disaster. We will leave no stone unturned."
A British team of police officers, led by the Metropolitan Police, will assist with victim identification in the Netherlands once bodies have arrived. The AAIB confirmed it would be working on the "black box" flight recorders, which have been handed over by the separatists. They will then hand the data to the Dutch investigators.
Interpol said its incident response team (IRT) in Ukraine had started preliminary attempts to identify passengers from MH17. A spokesman for the international crime agency said the disaster victim identification (DVI) process had started on bodies which had arrived in Kharkiv.
He said: "The remains of victims recovered so far were labelled and numbered before being transported in refrigerated freight wagons from Donetsk to the designated centre of operations in Kharkiv where the Interpol IRT, along with other international DVI teams in place, will carry out preliminary examinations.
"Once the preliminary examinations are completed, is it expected that the victims will be transported to the Netherlands where the full DVI process will be carried out in accordance with Interpol standards." He added that Interpol had received offers of additional experts from 13 member countries. Relatives of those killed would be asked to send information to its headquarters in Lyon "in order for the victims to be identified as quickly as possible in order for them to be returned to their families".
David Cameron tonight called on the Russians to release their own information about how MH17 came down, to assist the investigation. Speaking during a visit to Scotland he said: "The feeling is that the AAIB and the experts at Farnborough are some of the most highly qualified people anywhere in the world to examine the black box and what it may contain.
"But I would make the point of course that the people who probably have the really valuable information about what happened to this flight are indeed the Russians themselves, and they should release what they know about what happened over the skies of eastern Ukraine."
Addressing sanctions, he said that progress was being made, adding: "I think that other countries of Europe can now see that this lethal cocktail of allowing weapons and armed personnel to go into eastern Ukraine and support separatists has ended in this appalling tragedy. And so, yes, of course we've got to open the site and have a proper investigation, but we need to go further than that - we need to stop the Russian destabilisation of Ukraine and that means further sanctions.
"And what's happened today is those further sanctions are being put on to the starting blocks. That's good news but of course we need to do more."