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Terror or accidents?

Russian airliner explodes

©New York Times

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 5, 2001

MOSCOW -- A Russian airliner carrying 76 people including scores of Jewish holiday celebrants traveling from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk in central Siberia exploded and plunged into the Black Sea off Russia's coast Thursday.

All 64 passengers and 12 crew members of the Siberian Airlines jet, a Tupolev 154, were presumed dead after the stricken plane plunged from some 30,000 feet into the sea about 87 miles off the Russian coastal town of Dzhubga.

As word of the event reached stunned relatives in Israel, where all of the flight's tickets were bought, Russian, Ukrainian and U.S. officials reached starkly divergent theories as to the cause of the crash.

President Vladimir Putin, who has thrown Russia's support behind an American-led campaign against terrorism, said later the disaster may itself have been the work of terrorists, a conclusion quickly echoed by Russian intelligence officials.

But there were also suggestions from U.S. officials that the crash could have been caused by anti-aircraft missiles fired by Ukrainian military forces who were conducting a first-ever training exercise, with Russian help, off the Black Sea's Crimean peninsula at the time.

The New York Times quoted a U.S. intelligence officer in Washington, apparently relying on data gathered as the United States monitored the exercises, as saying that the explosion had all the indications of being caused by a surface-to-air missile."

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry adamantly denied any role in the crash Thursday night, saying that all its missiles hit their intended targets -- unmanned airborne drones -- and that in any case, the exercises were staged far from the jet's flight path.

Putin himself seemed to underscore that Thursday evening. "The weapons used by the army in the exercises were by their technical characteristics unable to reach the corridor through which the Tu-154 was traveling," he said. He added that he was relying on Ukrainian and Russian accounts which, he said, he had no reason to doubt.

But Pentagon officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, apparently relying on intelligence data, differed almost as strongly. In Washington, one intelligence officer said that the evidence so far suggested the missile might have been an SA-12, a long-range land-based missile fired from tubes mounted atop a tanklike vehicle.

Other officials said that while U.S. observers had conclusively determined that a surface-to-air missile downed the aircraft, the missile's precise identity was a matter of speculation, subject to change as the data that had been harvested was interpreted.

While some said terrorists might have fired a missile at the jet, the location of the disaster -- five miles above the Black Sea, far from land that provides a terrorist haven -- seemed to all but rule that out.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, the longest-range version of the SA-12 is guided by radar and can hit targets as far away as 125 miles. Ukrainian officials put the crash site at 150 miles away.

Ukrainian military spokesmen insisted Thursday night that the missiles fired during Thursday's tests -- 40, by their count -- could fly no farther than about six miles.

But that claim was clouded by the military's own publicity, which stated before the exercise began on Sept. 28 that the forces were to attack the drones with Russian-made S-200, S-300 and S-125 missiles, all with far longer ranges, as well as with MiG-29 jets.

Avrohom Berkowitz, executive director of the Moscow-based Federation of Jewish Communities of the former Soviet Union, said 51 of the passengers were former Soviet or Russian citizens, now naturalized Israelis, who were returning to Novosibirsk to celebrate the Jewish holiday Sukkot.

"In Israel, Sukkot is a vacation time, so a lot of former Russian citizens were going back on the weekly charter flight to Novosibirsk to visit family," Berkowitz said in Jerusalem.

"We know people on the list, people on the plane. It's hitting very hard."

The nationalities of the remaining 13 passengers were not known. Moscow's TV-6 reported that most of the passengers had Russian surnames. Thousands of Russian Jews have emigrated to Israel in recent years.

By mid evening Russian rescue teams had recovered nine bodies at the scene, a thin trail of unrecognizable shards stretching hundreds and even thousands of yards atop the blue waters.

Although technically a charter flight, the jet provided a regular weekly flight from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk, where Siberian Airlines, a fast-growing Russian carrier now second in size only to Aeroflot, has its headquarters. Novosibirsk has a thriving Jewish community of about 15,000 people.

The jet vanished from Russian air controllers' radar screens at 1:44 p.m. Moscow time (5:44 a.m. EDT) as it approached the Russian coast, the main Russian air traffic control center at Rostov-on-Don reported. Pilots of one aircraft flying from Rostov reported seeing a trail of smoke and white spots at the 30,000-foot level.

The chairman of the Kremlin security council, Vladimir Rushailo, told reporters that the captain of a nearby Armenian passenger plane had seen the aircraft explode above him and fall into the sea, where a second explosion occurred.

Putin ordered an investigative committee formed to determine the cause of the disaster -- a potentially arduous, if not impossible task should a military accident be ruled out. Charts indicate that the Black Sea is at least 6,600 feet deep at the crash site.

Russian officials said they were not excluding a mechanical cause. The 10-year-old Tupolev jet, a staple of many Russian airline fleets, received its last major service two years ago, Russian news agencies reported.

The Tu-154 has a mediocre safety record. Its most recent major crash, last July in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, killed 143 people, making it Russia's worst air disaster in decades.

But Putin, meeting in the Kremlin Thursday with justice ministers from the Council of Europe, made it clear that the government's early suspicions lay elsewhere.

"We saw a tragic event today," he said. "A civilian plane crashed. A terrorist act has not been ruled out."

A spokesman for the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the Soviet KGB, which has responsibility for internal security, said terrorism was atop its list of possible causes, though no one had claimed responsibility.

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