Investigators yesterday combed through the wreckage of a Russian passenger jet that crashed into a Ukrainian field during a severe thunderstorm, killing all 170 people aboard.
The flight recorders of the Pulkovo Airlines' Tu-154 have not been found. The recorders could explain the cause of the third fatal crash this year of a Russian passenger airliner.
Emergency officials said preliminary information suggested that weather caused the crash about 45km from the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
The plane was flying to St Petersburg from the Russian Black Sea resort of Anapa -- a holiday destination popular with families, flying over Ukraine when it ran into trouble.
"Right now, it is difficult to determine the cause of the accident," said Ukraine's Transport Minister Mykola Rudkovsky in televised remarks.
He noted, however, that weather had been severe, and suggested the plane might have flown into a cyclone.
Ukrainian officials said a storm with heavy winds, driving rain and flashes of lightning was raging through the region at the time. Russian Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Irina Andrianova, citing information from her Ukrainian counterparts, said the plane was likely hit by lightning.
The pilot asked to make an emergency landing before disappearing from the radar screens at around 2:30pm, said Mykhaylo Korsakov, spokesman for the Donetsk department of Emergency Situations Ministry.
Rudkovsky also said that the pilot had asked for permission to change course by about 20km to the east, and was given permission.
The wreckage was found about an hour after the plane disappeared from radar screens in Sukha Balka, a village about 640km east of Kiev.
Under sunny skies yesterday, fragments of the plane -- its engines, parts of the landing gear, the nose and chunks of the fuselage -- were scattered around fields and a small forest.
Authorities had stretched red tape around a 700m2 area as investigators hunted for the flight recorders.
Vadim Seryogin, head of the team from the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, said Russian investigators, prosecutors and security service officials were at the site.
Authorities planned to begin collecting the bodies later yesterday, and relatives were expected to visit the crash scene.
Of the 170 people on board, 45 were children, Pulkovo Airlines deputy director Anatoly Samoshin said at the St Petersburg airport. The list of passengers, most of whom were from St Petersburg, appeared to include many families.