Beijing - The remains of more than 400 Chinese soldiers killed fighting in the Korean War over 60 years ago returned home on Friday for a final burial.
A Chinese plane transporting the coffins of the 437 soldiers touched down in the northeastern city of Shenyang, the official Xinhua news agency said in a short dispatch.
State-run CCTV showed footage of the arrival ceremony with the small coffins laid out on the tarmac, each draped in a red Chinese flag. Aged veterans in uniform, some wearing campaign medals, were in attendance, with one man shown wiping away tears.
“Our martyrs finally returned to their homeland,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing.
“We hereby pay the highest tribute to them.”
Earlier, the coffins were carried by Chinese soldiers onto the aircraft at South Korea's Incheon airport for the flight to Shenyang, where China has a state cemetery for its war dead.
The return symbolises the turnaround in ties between Beijing and Seoul, once ideological enemies that only established diplomatic relations in 1992 as Cold War enmities gave way to booming trade and cooperation.
China fought alongside the North in the 1950-53 conflict, with its dramatic and crucial intervention coming after US-led forces pushed the Communist army back almost as far as the Chinese border.
The Chinese move enabled Communist forces to drive Western troops back south, and ultimately the armistice line was drawn across the peninsula near the pre-war 38th parallel border.
Casualty figures remain disputed but Western estimates commonly cite a figure of 400 000 Chinese deaths, while Chinese sources mention a toll of about 180 000.
Their sacrifice forged ties of blood between Beijing and Pyongyang which endure to this day.
Ma Huaicheng, an 81-year-old veteran of the conflict who lives in China's Henan province, welcomed the return.
“This is a very good thing and is a very big comfort for our dead comrades-in-arms and their friends and relatives,” he told AFP.
“They sacrificed their lives in foreign lands and it's worthwhile for us, the living, to commemorate. And it can teach later generations to treasure peace and oppose war,” said Ma, who stayed on in North Korea until 1958 to aid in its reconstruction.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye had offered to return the bodies as a goodwill gesture during a visit to Beijing in June last year.
“This is a new milestone in bilateral relations and is expected to serve as a good example of promoting peace in Northeast Asia,” South Korean defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-Seok said.
Hong, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said: “We believe that this cooperation will enhance the friendliness between the two peoples of our two countries.”
The transfer comes in time for the annual Chinese Qingming, or tomb-sweeping, festival when many people visit and clean the graves of their ancestors. This year it falls on April 5.
The soldiers' bodies were initially buried in different locations scattered around South Korea.
In 1996, Seoul designated a special cemetery plot in Paju, just south of the heavily-fortified border with the North, where all the remains of Chinese and North Korean soldiers still on South Korean soil could be buried together.
While some graves are named, most are identified only by nationality.
Work on exhuming the Chinese bodies at Paju for repatriation began in December.
China and South Korea have agreed to set up a mechanism for further repatriations before Qingming every year, Xinhua said in an earlier report from Incheon.
More than 700 North Korean soldiers are also interred at Paju, but Pyongyang has ignored Seoul's offer to return them despite sporadic talks on the issue.
The site also holds the bodies of more than two dozen North Korean commandos killed in a daring but unsuccessful 1968 attack on the presidential palace in Seoul.
A North Korean agent responsible for the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed 115 people, who committed suicide after he was captured, is also there.