Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Russian investigators sift through plane wreckage

MYSTERIOUS CRASHES Officials began looking for clues as to why the two aircraft plummetted to the earth, as rumors of suicide bomb attacks abounded

AP , MOSCOW

Russian rescuers lift a piece of the wreckage of the Tupolev 154 passenger jet as it lies near Gluboky, a village some 140km outside Rostov on Don, yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

A government commission searching for the cause of the near-simultaneous crashes of two airliners began work at one of the wreckage sites yesterday after workers finished combing over the shattered plane, but clues to clear up the mystery were not immediately reported.

The crashes that killed all 89 people aboard the planes Tuesday took place just five days before a Kremlin-called election in warring Chechnya, whose separatist rebels are blamed in a series of suicide bombings in recent years. Officials had expressed concern that militants might try to carry out attacks ahead of Sunday's vote.

But despite the timing and circumstances of the crashes, officials say no firm evidence of terrorism has yet been found in the planes' charred wreckage and they're looking into the possibilities of poor fuel and human error.

The data recorders from both planes have been recovered in apparently good condition, the ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Transport Minister Igor Levitin as saying. Levitin heads the commission investigating the crashes.

The commission traveled yesterday to one of the crash sites, where a Tu-134 with 43 people aboard went down about 200 kilometers south of Moscow. Workers ended their search work there, but were continuing to comb the other wreckage, of a Tu-154 with 46 people aboard that fell to earth in southern Russia.

"There is still no clear-cut concept of what occurred, because the procedure of deciphering the data recorders will be conducted more than once," Levitin was quoted as saying.

Although officials were holding back on speculation that terrorism was involved, the crashes nonetheless raised serious concerns about security at Russian airports. President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered the government to draft legislation to turn over responsibility for airport security to the Interior Ministry, which runs both the police and paramilitary forces, according to news reports.

Putin also designated yesterday as a national day of mourning.

The planes -- a Sibir airlines Tu-154 with 46 aboard and a Tu-134 with 43 passengers and crew belonging to tiny Volga-Aviaexpress airline -- disappeared from radar around 11pm Tuesday. The Tu-134 was headed to the southern city of Volgograd and the other plane to the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

Both had taken off from the single terminal at Moscow's newly renovated Domodedovo airport, the Tu-154 around 9:35pm and the smaller Tu-134 about 40 minutes later.

An Israeli Embassy spokesman said an Israeli citizen, David Coen, was on the Volgograd-bound jet, but the ITAR-Tass news agency said two Israelis were on the plane.

Uncertainty over the cause of the crashes came after Sibir said it was notified that its jet had activated an emergency signal shortly before disappearing from radar screens. Officials said there were no indications of trouble with the other plane, but witnesses on the ground reported hearing a series of explosions.

Domodedovo airport said in a statement that both planes "went through the standard procedure of preparation for flight ... [and] the procedures were carried out properly."

Still, there was skepticism that technical failure or human error could bring down two planes at almost the same time hundreds of kilometers apart. "That's pretty far out there on the chance bar," said Bob Francis, former vice chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board.

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