Chechens under suspicion in crashes

Russian searchers recover flight recorders

no cause of disasters readily evident

August 26, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Police and emergency workers recovered bodies and secured the flight recorders yesterday from the wreckage of two Russian airliners that crashed Tuesday night, while authorities said they weren't ruling out accidental causes for the near-simultaneous air disasters.

Several analysts, though, said the timing and similarities strongly suggested a coordinated attack.

Both planes left the same gate at the same Moscow airport within 40 minutes Tuesday night. Both vanished from radar screens about 11 p.m. Witnesses reported that three loud explosions rocked one aircraft; someone on the other flight tripped an emergency alarm shortly before it went down.

But the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, reported yesterday that a search of the crash sites yielded no initial signs of sabotage or hijacking - though neither cause had been ruled out. Investigators said they also had not ruled out mechanical failure, faulty fuel or pilot error.

The mystery might quickly be resolved after an examination of the flight recorders. Both recorders have been taken to Moscow for analysis.

While investigators were cautious, several terrorism experts said they feared the crashes were the latest in a series of attacks by radical Chechen separatists that have killed more than 500 people here in the past two years.

"I'm inclined to think that it was a terrorist attack," Gennady Gladkov, a member of the security committee in the Russian Duma, or lower house of parliament, told The Sun yesterday. "Otherwise, how could it happen that two planes flying in one direction crash at the same time?"

Gladkov suggested someone might have planted bombs on the planes, or "kamikaze" hijackers might have brought them down. Either way, he said, the prime suspects would be separatists in the Russian republic of Chechnya, who have staged a number of devastating suicide- and truck-bombings against civilians in recent years.

"I am pretty sure that many people share my opinion that both incidents were planned and executed by Chechens," Gladkov said.

Alexei Malashenko, a specialist in the Chechen conflict with the Carnegie Moscow Center, agreed: "I'm sure these crashes were connected to the situation in the northern Caucasus."

Malashenko called attacks on aircraft a logical next step for militants who have already bombed Russian passenger trains and the Moscow Metro.

"They want to prove that they can do anything they want, at every moment, in every place," he said. "And in my opinion it's not the last terrorist act. We have to be ready for something new."

The twin crashes came five days before Sunday's presidential vote in Chechnya. The elections will fill the vacancy left by the assassination of President Akhmad Kadyrov, the Kremlin's staunch ally, in May.

At least 89 dead

At least 89 passengers and crew members died as the planes crashed into the sodden, grassy fields of south-central Russia. Among the dead were at least two foreigners - a Ukrainian woman and an Israeli man. No American passengers were registered on either flight, authorities said.

Yesterday, Russian television showed a man in his 40s, on the verge of tears, describing how his friend, who was among those killed, had left a wife and two small children.

Both flights originated at Domodedovo Airport just south of Moscow, the capital's most modern airport. The first to leave was a Siberian Airlines flight to the resort city of Sochi, on the Black Sea, where President Vladimir V. Putin is vacationing.

Siberia Air's Tupolev-154, a medium-range commercial jet, carried 46 people and took off at 9:35 p.m. Moscow time. The plane, reportedly equipped with an armored cockpit door, was about 600 miles south of Moscow at 10:59 p.m., when it broke up. At least 15 bodies had been recovered by last night from the crash, authorities said.

Authorities said the plane sent out an emergency signal before it broke up, spreading wreckage along a 25-mile path near the village of Glubokaya, north of the city of Rostov-on-Don. There were conflicting accounts about whether the alarm signaled a general emergency or a hijacking attempt.

Six male passengers checked in for the Sochi flight but did not board in Moscow. Airport authorities said their luggage was removed from the plane before it took off. A search for the men was launched yesterday.

Natalya Fileva, deputy general director of Siberia Airlines, told the RIA Novosti news agency that an attack, rather than a mechanical problem or pilot error, was the most likely explanation for the crash.

Flash and explosions

The second plane, a Volga Avia Express flight, took off at 10:15 p.m. and headed for the southern city of Volgograd with 43 passengers and crew. Controllers lost contact with the plane at 10:56 p.m., as it flew past the city of Tula about 90 miles south of Moscow.

Witnesses said they saw a bright flash and heard explosions before the plane, a Tupolev-134, went down.

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