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PM under pressure as crash victims arrive in Netherlands

THE first coffins carrying the remains of the victims of the downed Malaysia Airlines plane have arrived in the Netherlands, which, with two-thirds of the 298 killed, suffered the greatest loss in the tragedy.

On a day of national mourning, two transport planes touched down to the sound of tolling bells. They were greeted by the Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima as well as by Mark Rutte, the country's Prime Minister. The last post was played as the first of 40 wooden coffins was slowly carried out of the aircraft to begin the process of identification.

Out of respect, the Union flag and the Dutch flag were flown at half-mast over Downing Street.

The poignant arrival of the dead came as political pressure intensified at home on David Cameron over arm sales to Russia.

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister took the moral high ground, telling MPs that, in the wake of the plane crash and the ongoing military crisis in Ukraine, no European country should be selling arms to Russia. He upbraided the French Government, which is in the midst of supplying Vladimir Putin's government with warships, saying it would be "unthinkable" for that to happen in Britain.

But a report by the Commons Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC), published yesterday, laid out how Britain was still exporting tens of millions of pounds worth of arms and military equipment to Russia.

While 31 licences had been revoked or suspended, another 251, worth more than £130 million, remained in force, covering such things as sniper rifles, small arms ammunition, body armour and even missiles.

No 10 was adamant that a ban on any arm sales to the Russian military was "comprehensive"; it was suggested the sniper rifles were to be used by huntsmen and missile technology was for Brazilian warships being kitted out in Russia.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon also made clear Britain did not export arms to the Russian military "that could be used for internal repression".

"That's always been an absolutely standing policy," said the Scot. "We have one of the strictest arms sale policies in the world. There is no equipment at all now that's being sold to Russia that could possibly be used in Ukraine," he added.

But Sir John Stanley, the CAEC chairman, last night wrote to Mr Cameron, seeking clarification, saying the orders were for a "significant amount of serious military weaponry".

As he did so, the PM expressed confidence that a ban on sales to the Russian military, introduced in March, was still in force but he vowed to look again to see if it had been breached.

"I believe," he said, "we have been consistent with the terms of the arms embargo that we set out which was principally aimed at Russian armed forces and the use of goods and involvement in Ukraine but we will look carefully at all outstanding licences and make sure that's the case and, of course, if it's not the case we would want to act very swiftly."

Earlier at Eindhoven, as a motorcade of hearses took the first victims to the Korporaal van Oudheusden barracks for identification, Mr Rutte warned the whole process could take "weeks or even months".

Among the victims are 10 Britons, including former RAF search and rescue controller Stephen Anderson, 44, from Inverness. One of the relatives awaiting the coffins was Barry Sweeney, father of Newcastle United football fan Liam Sweeney, who died while en route to see his team play in New Zealand. He said the grieving families "need closure" through the return of their loved ones and their forthcoming burials.

The Dutch, at the request of the Ukrainian government, are leading the investigation into what happened to the Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur flight.

A British team of police officers, led by Scotland Yard, will assist with victim identification.

Examination at the crash site in eastern Ukraine was said to be "in full swing" while at Farnborough in Hampshire, experts were starting to sift through the evidence in the plane's black boxes. The analysis is expected to take weeks.

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