An air force helicopter crashed in a mountainous area of southern Chechnya Saturday, killing eight people. The cause of the crash was unknown, but Russian military officials said it was unlikely it had been shot down by Chechen rebels.
Officials initially said there were four people aboard the Mi-8 helicopter, but an air force official who declined to give his name -- in line with Russian practice -- said there were nine aboard and that eight were killed. Russian news agencies quoted air force spokesman Colonel Alexander Drobyshevsky as saying the same.
The crash killed three crew members and five border guards who were passengers, Drobyshevsky said, according to the reports.
He told NTV television that the surviving passenger -- who NTV reported had accompanied a fuel shipment to a border post in southern Chechnya -- was flown to the main Russian military base in Chechnya and hospitalized with burns and head injuries.
The helicopter crashed in the Itum-Kale district while preparing to stop on the way back to the Russian base at Khankala near the capital, Grozny, after picking up the border guards at the Tuzkhoroi settlement, Russian news agencies quoted Drobyshevsky as saying. Tuzkhoroi is the site of a border post near the Georgian frontier.
The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Drobyshevsky as saying the pilots of two Mi-24 helicopters escorting the Mi-8 saw it slam into a mountain and suggesting that the crash was an accident -- not the result of rebel fire.
Chechnya's southern mountains are a rebel stronghold, and militants have shot down several Russian helicopters over the region during the two wars there in the past decade, sometimes using shoulder-held missile launchers. Others have crashed because of technical problems or pilot error.
Interfax quoted unnamed military officials at Khankala as saying that the surviving passenger, who was in serious condition, said the helicopter did not come under attack, and that the crash was probably caused by pilot error or a technical problem.
However, it also quoted unnamed officials in the military prosecutor's office for the region including Chechnya as saying investigators believe the most likely causes were an attack or a technical problem.
War is over
A downing by rebels would be embarrassing for President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials, who say the war in Chechnya is over.
In Russia's worst military aviation catastrophe, an overcrowded Mi-26 heavy transport helicopter was shot down by a shoulder-fired missile as it prepared to land at Khankala in August 2002, killing 127 people.
A rebel Web site claimed militants downed an Mi-8 that crashed after hitting a power line this March, killing 15 people, but officials denied it.
Following a withdrawal after a 1994-1996 war that left Chechnya with de facto independence, Russian forces rolled back into the region in 1999.
More than five years later, large-scale battles are rare, but deadly violence occurs daily and Chechnya is plagued by abductions blamed on Russian troops, rebels and Kremlin-backed Chechen security forces.
Four people were abducted Friday in Grozny by armed, camouflage-clad men in two separate incidents police believe may have been the work of a single group, Russian news agencies reported.
Also Saturday, Russian news agencies reported that two suspected militants accused of taking part in a June 2004 raid in Ingushetia, adjacent to Chechnya, have been detained; one in Siberia and one in North Ossetia, which borders Ingushetia. Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the raid, which targeted law enforcement authorities and left some 90 people dead.