The Army has paid tribute to the "selfless courage and sacrifice" of three New Zealand soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
Corporal Luke Tamatea, Lance-Corporal Jacinda Baker and Private Richard Harris from the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan province were killed when their Humvee was blown up by an improvised explosive device on Sunday.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force Hercules carrying the bodies landed in Christchurch just before 2pm on Thursday, where a ramp ceremony included a haka from members of the soldiers' regiment based at Burnham Military Camp near the city.
Family members boarded the Hercules before the coffins were removed, some supported by members of the regiment and one breaking down and screaming as she was led towards the plane.
Lance-Corporal Baker, the first New Zealand servicewoman killed in Afghanistan, was carried by an all-female group of pallbearers.
The head of the Army, Major-General Tim Keating, who attended the ceremony, said it was a privilege to be with the families and to honour the sacrifice the soldiers had made.
"I wish that the circumstances of their return were different," he said. "However it is my privilege to stand beside the families of Corporal Tamatea, Lance-Corporal Baker and Private Harris as they return to New Zealand, and honour their sacrifice with the dignity and respect they deserve.
"I pay tribute to their selfless courage and sacrifice that they have made in the name of world peace. I must also acknowledge the loyal and honourable service of our Defence Force people who are continuing to serve in Afghanistan and in other missions overseas at this time."
Private funeral services later
Army spokesperson John Gordon paid tribute to the families.
"I guess you appreciate that today they've seen their loved ones for the first time in several months and so it's a very difficult time for them. For them, it's about having that private moment on the aircraft and they did that."
Major Gordon said it was gut-wrenching for him to hear the news that another three soldiers had been killed so soon after the deaths of lance-corporals Rory Malone and Pralli Durrer in Bamyan on 4 August. All were from the same regiment.
The bodies were escorted home by members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, including members of the 2nd/1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, the 1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment and the 2nd Health Support Battalion.
The families are expected to hold private funeral services next week after a memorial service at Burnham military camp.
Ten New Zealand soldiers have now lost their lives while serving in Afghanistan since troops were first deployed in 2003.