SCMP Friday, October 5, 2001

Russian airliner crashes into Black Sea

RICHARD BALMFORTH of Reuters in Moscow, TONY RODDAM in Kiev, HASMIK MKRTCHYAN in Yerevan and YELENA SMIRNOVA in Novosibirsk

Updated at 4.00am:
A Russian airliner carrying up to 78 passengers and crew on a flight from Israel exploded and plunged into the Black Sea in unexplained circumstances yesterday.
Ukraine quickly dismissed American suggestions that the plane might have been hit by an accidental missile strike from Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin said it might be a ''terrorist act''.
The mid-air explosion of the Sibir airlines Tupolev-154 jet, on a scheduled flight from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk in Siberia, inevitably triggered fears of sabotage following suicide hijacked airliner attacks in the United States, which left thousands of people missing and presumed dead.
''A civilian aircraft crashed today and it is possible that it was the result of a terrorist act,'' Putin told a meeting of European justice ministers.
But a US official in Washington said: ''We want to get away from this notion...that this was a terrorism act.''
''It could well have been a training accident, it could have been the Ukrainian military conducting a live-fire test. it could be a tragic accident,'' said one official, who did not wish to be identified, noting that Ukraine had been test-firing live surface-to-air missiles from the Crimea at the time.
But Ukrainian military spokesman Konstantin Khivrenko said: ''Neither the direction nor the range [of the missiles] correspond to the practical or theoretical point at which the plane exploded. So the Ukrainian military has no involvement, either practical or theoretical, in this accident.''
And Russian security sources, quoted by Interfax news agency, said the Ukrainian exercises had been taking place more than 320 km (200 miles) from where the plane came down.
''They [Ukrainian forces] were using missiles which do not have the required range,'' a source told Interfax.
The plane went down some 185 km (110 miles) off Russia's coast in water about 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) deep, an Emergencies Ministry official said. Russia sent a rescue ship and plane to the scene and began searching for bodies.
Official accounts of the number of passengers and crew on board varied between 74 and 78. An Emergencies Ministry official in Novosibirsk said the crew were all Russian but that most of the 65 or so passengers were Israeli citizens.
A Reuters reporter who watched the Ukrainian exercises said surface-to-air missiles were being fired from the east side of the Crimean peninsula at 20 or more airborne drone targets at around the time the plane came down.
In the Armenian capital Yerevan, Garik Ovanesyan, the flight director of Armenian Airlines, said the pilot of a plane flying near the Sibir jet had seen flames coming from it.
''The commander...contacted ground control to find out if there were any [military] exercises. Then there was an explosion and fragments falling to the sea,'' he said, citing the pilot.
Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia's domestic FSB security service, passed Armenian reports of the mid-air explosion to Putin during a crisis meeting in the Kremlin.
Putin spoke by telephone to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon following the crash, the Kremlin press service said.
The Emergencies Ministry said nine bodies - eight women and one man - had been recovered from the crash site.
The disaster, whatever its cause, provided a grim background to a meeting taking place between the Kremlin leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who arrived in Moscow to discuss the international crisis.
The September 11 attacks have led Washington to declare a ''war on terrorism'' and prepare military action against the bases in Afghanistan of Islamic militant Osama bin Laden.
Interfax quoted the FSB as saying: ''Taking into account the latest events in the world, the theory of a terrorist act is being investigated first of all.''
A Sibir airlines official in Novosibirsk said the plane would not normally have passed over the Black Sea and appeared to have been off course. ''Why should they have been given such an air corridor?'' she asked.
Israel resumed take-offs from Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport four hours after suspending outgoing flights following the crash.