A solemn ceremony has marked the return to Australia of the bodies of nine servicemen and women who died in a helicopter crash in Indonesia on Saturday. The crash occurred while the nine were helping with relief operations on the island of Nias, which was struck by an earthquake last week.
The nine coffins were draped in Australian flags and covered with a wreath of pink and white flowers. A lone piper played a lament before a minute's silence was observed.
It was a poignant moment for relatives of the dead - six from the Australian navy and three from the air force. One of the victims, navy reservist Matthew Davey, had recently sent an engagement ring to his girlfriend as a surprise wedding proposal.
The nine military personnel were on board an Australian Sea King helicopter that was involved in disaster relief following last week's earthquake off the coast of Indonesia.
Royal Australian Navy Chaplain Eric Burton read a prayer.
"As we receive their remains in the country of Australia, we commend their souls to you, their creator, who gave them life, and to whom they will return. Amen," he said.
Australia has been hit hard by the helicopter tragedy. The loss of life on Nias far outweighs the number of casualties among Australian forces deployed in recent times to East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Solomon Islands.
The nine bodies were met at Sydney's airport by family members, senior military officers and politicians including Prime Minister John Howard. Mr. Howard was joined by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is on an official visit to Australia.
Mr. Yudhoyono placed his country's medal of valor on each coffin. He said it was to recognize the "outstanding selflessness and sacrifice" displayed by those who died helping the islanders of Nias.
Two other crewmembers survived the accident and are being treated on an Australian navy ship off the coast of Nias.
President Yudhoyono said the people of Indonesia were profoundly saddened by the accident. His trip to Australia has heralded a significant improvement in relations between the two Asia-Pacific neighbors.
Australia loaned military personnel and equipment to Indonesia for the relief efforts after the December 26 earthquake and tsunami, and last week's earthquake. The epicenter of both quakes was off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Funerals for the nine victims of the crash are expected to be held in the next few days.