Russia considering missile theory on airliner explosion
SOCHI, Russia (AP) – High-ranking Russian and Ukrainian defense officials headed to the Black Sea on Sunday to investigate whether a Russian airliner was mistakenly shot down by a Ukrainian missile.
As investigators continued their work, a chilling portrait of the flight’s final moments was emerging. Before the plane plunged into the sea Thursday, the crew managed to make radio contact with the airport in Adler on the Russian Black Sea coast, authorities said.
One of the crew members let out a scream at 1:45 p.m., Alexander Neradko, the Deputy Transport Minister said, indicating that it may have been in response to the explosion.
The search for bodies continued Sunday at the crash site of the Sibir Airlines Tupolev 154, and more relatives of the 78 victims arrived in the Black Sea city of Sochi where the investigation is based.
Over the weekend, Russia changed its position on the cause of Thursday’s explosion and crash. It now appears willing to consider the U.S. contention that Ukraine accidentally shot down the aircraft during military exercises.
Russian Defense Ministry experts were sent Sunday to help with the investigation, and a Ukrainian military team led by a high-ranking general was expected to arrive Monday, said Vladimir Potapov, a deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council.
President Vladimir Putin was dissatisfied with information provided by the Ukrainians and has asked for more details on Ukraine’s military exercises, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Saturday.
The jetliner, en route from Tel Aviv, Israel, to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, exploded and crashed into the sea 114 miles off the Russian coastal city of Adler, near Sochi.
U.S. intelligence officials have said the plane was hit by a Ukrainian missile during the military exercises, which took place 155 miles away. The missile was tracked by U.S. satellites.
Russia initially dismissed the U.S. contention, and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has repeatedly said a missile strike was impossible. However, Interfax news agency reported that Putin and Kuchma spoke by telephone Saturday and agreed no theory should be ruled out.
A 21-member Israeli delegation arrived in Sochi on Sunday. Most victims were Russian-born Israeli immigrants, many of whom were headed back to Russia to visit relatives over the Sukkot holiday.
Igor Maslakov, Sochi’s chief forensic expert, said the Israelis brought dental and fingerprint records to identify passengers.
The Israeli delegation included forensic experts and three Jewish military chaplains, one of whom carried a large box containing a Torah scroll. The rabbis were to observe Jewish funeral rites.
Dozens of relatives gathered at a Jewish community center for a prayer service led by one of Russia’s chief rabbis, Rabbi Berl Lazar.
Pavel Kravchets, a Russian Jew and an army reservist who lost a daughter and a 17-month-old grandson in the crash, said he believed a missile hit the plane.
”In my years of service, there were also cases when equipment failed and people made mistakes. But an officer’s honor must be high. He should acknowledge his mistakes,” Kravchets said, his eyes red from crying.
Salvage workers have recovered 14 bodies and the fragments of one other body. Eight have been identified, and five were confirmed to be Israeli citizens, said Leonid Baklitsky, the regional deputy governor in charge of the recovery operation.
Baklitsky said a boat would bring relatives of the victims to the crash site Monday.
Objects that were not part of the plane had been found among the wreckage and were being examined, said Vladimir Rushailo, head of the Russian Security Council. He refused to give details.
Sergei Kargin, deputy head of Sochi rescue service, described one object as a cylinder 55 to 66 feet long.
U.S. intelligence officials believe the plane was hit by a Ukrainian S-200 or SA-5 missile, a large surface-to-air missile built to shoot down heavy bombers flying at high altitudes.
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