Putin blaming helicopter crash on military brass

Russian president says ban on use to transport troops was ignored


MOSCOW - President Vladimir V. Putin sharply criticized his military commanders yesterday, bluntly blaming dereliction of duty for the crash of an overloaded transport helicopter Monday near the main military base in Chechnya.

Putin, making his most extensive public remarks on the catastrophic crash, said the Ministry of Defense had banned the use of the huge helicopter, the Mi-26, for troop transport in 1997, limiting it to cargo. And yet, Putin said, Mi-26s were still being used to shuttle troops in and out of Chechnya, the republic in the Caucasus that is still in the grip of a separatist rebellion.

"How could it happen that despite a defense minister's order banning the use of helicopters of this type from carrying people, people were still being carried?" Putin asked.

The death toll rose to 116 yesterday, as another soldier died of his injuries in the crash, in which the helicopter, carrying 147 soldiers and civilians, went down in a minefield outside the heavily fortified base at Khankala, just east of the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Thirty-one passengers and crew members survived, but several remain in critical condition with severe burns, and officials fear more would die.

Putin's stinging rebuke to the military came during a meeting at an airport near Moscow with the defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, that was broadcast at length on Russian television. Putin declared yesterday to be a day of national mourning.

Putin, leaving for a meeting in the Far East with President Kim Jong Il of North Korea, made no mention of the possibility that Chechen fighters had shot down the helicopter, as they claimed and as investigators suggested just after the crash.

Instead, he sharply complained that Russian officers had ignored orders governing helicopter transports and failed to enact reforms intended to prevent such accidents.

"We have to draw very serious conclusions from the analysis of all incidents of this sort, regardless of their scale and adverse effects," he said grimly during his meeting with Ivanov, one of his closest advisers.

"Even a very preliminary analysis shows that as the basis of these disasters, as a rule, there lies a failure by officials to carry out their direct duties adequately."

Putin did not explain why the military had barred the helicopters from ferrying passengers. The Mi-26, which entered full service in 1983, is one of the world's largest helicopters, capable of carrying 22 tons of cargo or about 80 combat-equipped soldiers.

About 300 have been built for the Russian military since they were introduced; only three, including the one that crashed, were being used by the command overseeing the war in Chechnya, while several more were used by federal interior and security forces.

Yesterday evening, a defense official said that the ban on troop transport, first issued in 1997 and recently reissued by Russia's top commander, Gen. Anatoly Kvashnin, reflected the fact that the helicopter was never really designed to serve as a passenger shuttle. That the order was openly flouted suggested a significant breakdown of military discipline.

"There is no justification, Vladimir Vladimirovich," Ivanov said in response to Putin's questions, addressing him familiarly with his patronymic.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst in Moscow, said yesterday that the order barring passengers on the Mi-26 had been widely disregarded in Chechnya because of soldiers' fears of traveling on land. The one that crashed was grossly overloaded with troops flying to Khankala from Mozdok, the main Russian staging base.

"Do you know what a regulation means in Russia?" Felgenhauer asked. "Nothing."

Putin's remarks yesterday amounted to the clearest indication to date of his growing frustration with internal resistance to his proposals intended to make the military leaner, more agile and more professional.

"Our entire military reform is aimed at making the armed component of the state and the main part of that component - the armed forces - more competent, more viable, more efficient," he said. "All our actions are aimed at preventing tragedies of this sort happening in this country."

Everyone in the military, "from the top leaders to those who actually carry out the tasks, must clearly understand their level of responsibility and bear that responsibility," he added.

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