Russian airliner explodes, killing 77

Amid fears of terrorism, U.S. officials blame errant Ukrainian missile

October 05, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - A Russian passenger plane flying from Tel Aviv, Israel, exploded over the Black Sea yesterday, apparently killing all 77 people on board and sparking a furious effort by Russia to determine whether it had been the act of a terrorist.

U.S. defense officials said they believe the plane was shot down accidentally by a missile during a Ukrainian military exercise. But Ukrainian and Russian officials vigorously denied last night that that could have happened.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, echoing the arguments of Ukrainian officials and those of his navy, said the plane was out of range of the Ukrainian exercise.

But at a news conference with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Putin said: "Specialists will be able to come to final conclusions about the causes of the accident only after a thorough investigation and laboratory tests of the plane's wreckage."

The plane, a Tupolev 154 operated by Sibir Airlines, was en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk. After the crash, Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, which has a reputation for being one of the most secure airports in the world, shut down out of concern that terrorists had struck. Thousands of travelers were delayed before it reopened last night.

Fears rose that Russia had been targeted by Islamic terrorists, perhaps in league with those who crashed planes Sept. 11 in New York and Washington. Russia has allied itself with the United States in a struggle against terrorism, specifically against Osama bin Laden, and few expect that it can escape the likely conflict brewing in Afghanistan.

The Russian government argues that it has already gone to war against Islamic terrorists in Chechnya. Putin was vaulted into power in 1999 by the popularity he earned in pursuing Russia's war in the Caucasus.

If it were found that the Sibir flight was blown up by terrorists, it would cement Russian resolve behind Putin's decision to take the American side.

But Defense Department sources said yesterday that U.S. satellites had tracked a missile apparently headed for the plane and concluded that it probably came from the exercises in the Crimean peninsula.

Defense Department sources said it was probably an SA-5, which has an effective range of about 155 miles, according to the Federation of American Scientists. The Ukrainian military said the plane went down about 160 miles from the Crimea. The Defense Ministry in Kiev said the missiles being fired yesterday had a range of only about 22 miles.

In Novosibirsk, in southern Siberia, the airline said the plane carried 66 passengers and 11 crew members. It said 15 of the passengers were Russian citizens; the rest were Israelis - most of them presumably emigrants from Russia.

Two passengers who had tickets did not board the flight, and Ekho Moskvy radio said they were being investigated.

The Russian government appointed an interagency commission headed by the secretary of the Security Council to investigate the disaster.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, after talking with Putin, said last night that there was no clear indication that the plane had been accidentally shot down. He said terrorism remained a possibility.

"It's a heavy disaster," Sharon said, adding that he had agreed to send Israeli navy and air force representatives to the Black Sea to aid in the recovery of debris and bodies.

Russian search-and-rescue vessels quickly reached the scene yesterday, about 110 miles off the city of Sochi, but found little more than a trail of debris. By last night about a dozen bodies had been pulled from the water.

Ukrainian defense officials said the exercise area had been closed to civil aviation. But an Armenian commercial flight was flying about 15,000 feet below the Sibir plane, and its pilot witnessed the incident.

"I saw the explosion on the plane," the pilot, Garik Ovanisyan, told the Associated Press. "The plane fell into the sea, and there was another explosion in the sea. After that, I saw a big white spot on the sea and I had the impression that oil was burning."

In Yerevan, Armenia, the Reuters news service quoted the flight director of Armenian Airlines as saying that Ovanisyan "contacted ground control to find out if there were any [military] exercises," which he presumably would not have been doing had he received proper notification.

Controllers had no earlier indication of problems before the Sibir plane went down. The Federal Security Service, or FSB, is investigating the crash.

Alexander Zhdanovich, an FSB spokesman, told the Itar-Tass news agency that the pilots had not received any threats during the flight, but he said it is possible that terrorists brought it down. The FSB, he said, was trying to establish "what could have taken place on board the plane and find out whether there were terrorists there or if an explosive device was planted."

Sibir Flight 1812 was a twice-weekly charter. The 10-year-old Tu-154 that crashed could carry 158 to 164 passengers. About 900 were built, and there have been at least 23 crashes since they went into service in 1973.

In the most recent crash, a plane about to land in Irkutsk flopped to the ground in July, killing all aboard. Since then, a Tu-154 decompressed when a cockpit window popped out, and two had to land because of engine failure.

Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said communications between the pilot and controllers were routine.

"We made a very careful examination of all security steps," he said. "There was no fault to be found. At this moment, there is no evidence there was a terror attack. But there is nothing to disprove it either."

Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

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