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2 Russian Jets Crash; Terrorism Is Feared

August 25, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Two Russian airliners crashed within minutes of each other Tuesday night after taking off from the same airport, leading President Vladimir V. Putin to order an investigation into possible terrorism.

The two jetliners, which took off from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport about 40 minutes apart, carried a total of 89 passengers and crew, the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said.

All 43 passengers and crew members on one of the planes, a Tu-134, were confirmed dead, a ministry spokesman told the Russian news agency Interfax.

The ministry spokesman said the tail of the airliner was found about 750 yards from the main wreckage in the Tula region south of Moscow. Television images from the scene showed pieces of the aircraft in a field as rescue workers searched the area.

Pieces of the other plane were found hours after it disappeared from radar near the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, but there was no immediate word about any survivors, the ministry said.

Immediately before disappearing, the second plane sent a distress signal indicating that it had been hijacked, Interfax reported. "There are solid grounds for opening a criminal case ... because a minute before the plane's crash, a Rostov police office had received a message from an air traffic controller ... who said the plane's crew had been attacked," a source in the Rostov regional prosecutor's office told Interfax.Later, however, Interfax quoted an unnamed law enforcement source as saying the signal was a general SOS rather than a specific hijack alert.

"President Vladimir Putin has instructed the Federal Security Service to launch an investigation into the two incidents immediately," a spokesman, Alexei Gromov, told Interfax.

The security service is the main successor to the KGB.

The crashes came amid fears that separatist rebels in Russia's war-torn southern republic of Chechnya would launch attacks before Sunday's presidential election there, which a Kremlin-backed candidate is expected to win. The balloting is to pick a successor to Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in May.

Chechen separatists have been accused of several terrorist attacks in Russia in recent years.

Last week, guerrillas carried out a major raid in Grozny, the Chechen capital.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility in the plane crashes.

Domodedovo Airport continued to operate after the crashes, but additional security measures were implemented, Interfax reported. The stepped-up security was originally ordered after a bomb exploded about 7:40 p.m. Tuesday at a bus stop in Moscow, the news agency said, quoting civil aviation authorities.

At least three people were reported injured in that blast, which came before the two aircraft were reported to have disappeared from radar, just a few minutes apart.

Security was also reported tightened at Sheremetyevo, Moscow's main international airport, and at other airports across the country. Russian airports routinely X-ray baggage and screen passengers with metal detectors.

Domodedovo opened a special telephone hotline and started providing psychological care and medical aid for distraught relatives arriving at the airport to await further news, Itar-Tass news agency reported.

According to Interfax, witnesses reported seeing an explosion on board the Tu-134 just before it crashed about 100 miles south of Moscow.

The plane took off from Moscow at 10:31 p.m. en route to Volgograd with 35 passengers and eight crew members on board, the ministry said.

Wreckage of the Tu-134, including its tail and parts of the fuselage, was found near the village of Buchalki in the Tula region, the ministry said. The crew had not reported any problems before the crash, Itar-Tass reported. The Tu-134 was owned by Volga-Aviaexpress, Interfax said.

The Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that pieces of wreckage were found far enough apart to indicate that the aircraft may have exploded or disintegrated while in flight.

The other plane, a Tu-154 with 38 passengers and eight crew members aboard, was reported down in a region about 600 miles south of Moscow. Air traffic controllers lost contact with it about three minutes after losing contact with the other jet. It departed Moscow at 9:35 p.m. bound for the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

The planes crashed about 11 p.m. The ministry later reported finding flight recorders for both.

"There were no foreign citizens on the lists of passengers of the two airliners that flew out to Volgograd and Sochi from Domodedovo on Tuesday evening," Domodedovo Airport spokesman Igor Tikhomirov told Interfax.

Reflecting suspicions that the incidents could be terrorism-related, Interfax quoted an unnamed Russian aviation security expert discussing the possibility.

"Both the planes took off from the same Moscow airport and disappeared from radar screens about the same time, all of which suggests that terrorist attacks, planned in advance, may have been involved," the expert said.

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