Russian plane carrying 76 people crashes en route from Israel to Siberia
ADLER, Russia (AP) _ A Russian airliner carrying at least 76 people from Israel exploded and plunged into the Black Sea on Thursday, raising fears of a terrorist attack. But U.S. officials said a missile fired during Ukrainian military exercises apparently downed the plane.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said terrorists may have caused the crash and he had no reason to doubt a Ukrainian denial stressing that missiles used in the exercise did not have the range to reach the airliner.
However, a senior U.S. administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no evidence of terrorism and that a Ukrainian military exercise probably led to the crash.
The chartered Tupolev 154 went down in pieces 114 miles off the Russian coastal city of Adler, located on the Georgian border, said Vasily Yurchuk of the Emergency Situations Ministry.
The Sibir Airlines plane was on its way from Tel Aviv to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, about 1,750 miles east of Moscow, Yurchuk said.
President Bush, who spoke to Putin by telephone Thursday, said he was deeply saddened.
“My heartfelt sympathies, and those of the American people, are with the people of Israel and Russia, and the families of the many victims of this tragedy,” Bush said. He did not address Putin’s contention that the crash may have been the work of terrorists.
An Armenian airline pilot flying nearby witnessed the explosion and crash.
“I saw the explosion on the plane, which was above me at an altitude of 36,300 feet,” said Garik Ovanisian. “The plane fell into the sea, and there was another explosion in the sea. After that I saw a big white spot on the sea and I had the impression that oil was burning.”
Russian television showed footage of white debris floating on the sea in a straight line, following the trajectory of the wreckage into the depths.
Shortly after the crash, Putin told a delegation of European justice ministers that “it is possible that it is the result of a terrorist act.” Other Russian officials said terrorism was the main focus of the investigation.
“Against the background of the fight against international terrorism, naturally this version must be considered,” said Alexander Zdanovich, the spokesman for the Federal Security Service, referring to the Sept. 11 terror attacks against U.S. targets and Russia’s involvement in the anti-terrorist campaign.
Putin said he believed Ukraine when it said a missile from its military exercises did not bring down the flight.
“The weapons that were being used during this exercise could not reach the area where our Tu-154 was flying,” he said. “What I told you as of this moment is based on what our Ukrainian partners have told us and we don’t have any reason not to trust them.”
Putin also spoke with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. Putin spokesman Alexei Gromov said Kuchma spoke of “the absolute groundlessness of the accusations” that it was a Ukrainian missile, the Interfax news agency reported.
However, a U.S. Defense Department official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a long-range anti-aircraft missile, believed to be an S-200, appeared to have hit the plane after being launched from the Crimean region of Ukraine.
Senior military and administration officials had doubts about the terrorism claims at first, raising suspicions for hours in the upper reaches of government, including the White House. When Ukrainian officials first reported the incident, they cited a weapon that does not have the range needed. Later in the day, they acknowledged that a much larger weapon was involved. That, along with fresh intellgence information, virtually erased U.S. suspicions of terrorism.
The S-200 can fly faster than three times the speed of sound, has a range of up to 185 miles and can hit targets above 100,000 feet, according to several military publications.
The exercises were conducted on Cape Onuk, in Crimea, about 160 miles from the site of the crash _ territory controlled by the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Ukrainian anti-aircraft, navy, rocket forces, aviation and artillery took part as well as shore-based forces and a guard ship. Ukrainian officials said Russian forces were taking part in the exercise, but Putin denied it.
Part of the exercise involved firing on an unmanned aircraft. Ukrainian officials said it was impossible that a missile fired during the exercises brought down the passenger plane.”All the hits by the rockets used during the exercise were recorded by corresponding devices and reached their targets,” said Kostyantyn Khivrenko, the Ukrainian defense spokesman.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk observed the exercises, along with officials from Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.
“Our defense minister has already spoken to his Ukrainian counterpart and details of the technical data will be clarified,” Putin said. “I would ask you not to incite tension. All that we will have on that issue will be examined and reported to you, the public.”
The Sibir plane was carrying 64 passengers and 12 crew members, according to the airline. The airline’s deputy director for security, Viktor Alexeyev, was among them, deputy director Natalia Filyova said, according to state-controlled ORT television.
All the passengers were Israeli citizens, many of them new immigrants to Israel en route to Russia for family visits, said Sergei Mosalyov, a duty officer at the Emergency Situations Ministry.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said there were 66 passengers on the plane.
Filyova said the passengers’ manifest and the list of passengers who had bought tickets were not identical. The airline was trying to reconcile Hebrew and Russian names on the lists and said it would not release the names until Friday.
NTV television, citing unofficial sources, said Sibir had boosted security measures Monday following an indication picked up by Russian security services that terrorists might target it. There was no independent confirmation of the report.
But Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said there was no clear evidence of a terrorist attack.
Thirteen bodies had been recovered by late Thursday, Mosalyov said. The head of Putin’s security council, Vladimir Rushailo, arrived in Adler to head up the investigation. Israel also said it was sending a rescue team to help.
After the crash, Israel suspended takeoffs of foreign flights from its main airport, Ben Gurion International near Tel Aviv.
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