MOSCOW — A Russian passenger jet flying from Israel to Siberia burst into a fireball high over the Black Sea on Thursday, killing the 76 people on board and raising fears that it could be the latest target of a terrorist attack.
U.S. officials suggested, however, that the airliner was shot down by an errant surface-to-air missile fired by Ukrainian forces during military exercises taking place more than 200 miles away. Ukrainian officials denied the possibility.
Pilots aboard the Siberian Airlines charter flight gave no warning of malfunction or mishap aboard the craft before it disappeared from radar screens at 1:44 p.m., Russian aviation officials said. The pilots had last spoken to air traffic controllers during a routine check five minutes earlier.
The pilot of an Armenian airliner passing nearby saw a flash of light and watched as the plane fell toward the sea at least 30,000 feet below, trailing a red plume and raining debris. It exploded a second time upon impact, he said.
The Ukrainian armed forces were conducting exercises at the time that involved surface-to-air missiles, but Ukrainian and Russian officials insisted that the airliner was out of range of the weapons. Other scenarios included a bomb or catastrophic mechanical failure such as the one that downed TWA Flight 800 off New York in 1996.
"[Military] exercises were being held in the area adjacent to that territory at that time," Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said late Thursday. "However, first of all, all appropriate [aviation] services had been notified. And second, the weapons that were being used during the exercises, according to their tactical and technical parameters, could not have reached the air corridor in which our aircraft--the Tu-154--was located."
Putin said Russian naval officers were observing the Ukrainian exercises and "we have no reason to disbelieve either them or the Ukrainian military."
Initially, Putin and other top officials--on high alert since hijacked passenger planes were rammed into targets in New York and near Washington last month--had suggested that the most likely cause was terrorism.
"Naturally, one of the versions that we are working on is a terrorist act," said Alexander A. Zdanovich, spokesman for the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet KGB.
Israeli airport officials, known for their tight security, expressed disbelief that someone might have secreted a bomb on board at Ben Gurion International Airport.
Pini Schiff, spokesman for the Israeli Airport Authority, said the flight, its passengers and cargo underwent the same stringent security measures applied to all flights leaving the airport near Tel Aviv, including rigorous questioning of passengers, background checks and repeated inspection of luggage.
The chances of a bomb having been placed on the plane in the Israeli airport "are very poor," Schiff said. "Close to zero."
Siberian Airlines Flight 1812 was a regularly scheduled charter that flew once a week between Tel Aviv and Novosibirsk, a Siberian city about 1,800 miles east of Moscow. Schiff said it took off on time at 9:58 a.m.
"It left without harm, it flew for four hours and then we lost contact," he said. "The passengers were checked, there was nothing suspicious, everything went according to schedule."
Officials from Siberian Airlines, Russia's third-largest carrier, expressed disbelief that a massive technical failure might have caused the explosion.
"I still think it was a terrorist act. It was one of Siberian Airlines' best aircraft, and it was flown by the best pilots," said Natalya Filyova, deputy director-general of the carrier.
The plane exploded about 120 miles southwest of the Russian coastal resort of Sochi. Russian rescuers who reached the site shortly after the explosion found a long oil slick littered with small pieces of debris. By this morning, they had retrieved 13 bodies; they did not expect to find any of the 64 passengers or 12 crew members alive.
The sea is more than 3,000 feet deep at the site, a fact that is likely to hamper salvage efforts and make the investigation more difficult.
In Washington, Pentagon officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said they believed the plane may have been downed by a surface-to-air missile fired during naval exercises along the coast of Crimea, about 240 miles from the crash site. They suggested that the jet may have been struck by an S-200, a land-based surface-to-air missile with a radar guidance system.
Igor Khalyavinsky, spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, said that scenario was impossible. He insisted that the missiles fired during the exercises had a maximum range of about 25 miles and were targeted no higher than 700 feet, and that all missiles hit their intended targets. He also said all the missiles were designed to self-destruct if they strayed from their intended trajectory.