Suspicion of attack on jets grows

Flight recorders damaged before planes crashed, Russian authorities say

The World

August 27, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The flight recorders on both Russian airliners that crashed Tuesday were damaged before the planes hit the ground and have so far yielded little data, authorities said yesterday.

It could take two weeks to piece together useful information from the recovered "black box" devices, experts told Ekho Moskvy radio yesterday.

Both passenger jets -- one carrying business executives to Volgograd, the other vacationers to the Black Sea resort of Sochi -- disintegrated over central and southern Russia about 11 p.m. Tuesday. The Kremlin declared yesterday a national day of mourning for the 89 victims.

Officials were still careful yesterday not to rule out accidental causes, including contaminated fuel, pilot error or mechanical failure. But the damage to the data recorders only buttressed widespread suspicions that the aircraft were ripped in mid-air by bombs planted aboard.

Also today, a claim of responsibility for the downing of the planes appeared on a Web site known for militant Muslim comment.

The statement, which accused Russians of killing Muslims in the Russian republic of Chechnya, was signed "the Islambouli Brigades." The legitimacy of the group and the authenticity of such statements could not be verified.

"We in the Islambouli Brigades announce that our holy warriors managed to hijack two Russian planes and were crowned with success though they faced problems at the beginning," the statement said, without elaborating on the problems.

A Russian government official had admitted yesterday that an attack was considered the most likely cause of the crashes.

Vladimir Yakovlev, the presidential envoy for southern Russia, where one of the jetliners crashed, said that despite a lack of data from the flight recorders, the leading theory on the crashes "all the same remains terrorism," the Itar-Tass news agency reported.

Yakovlev also revealed that the flight recorders "turned off immediately ... this is probably the main affirmation that something happened very fast," the Associated Press reported.

Aviation safety experts have cast doubt on most alternative explanations -- especially because both crashes occurred with little warning, within three minutes of each other.

Vladimir Mikhailov, a former KGB explosives investigator, said in the newspaper Kommersant that only a small quantity of explosives would be needed to destroy an aircraft in flight. And, he said, most of Russia's domestic airports lack the expensive equipment needed to detect explosive substances.

If the government seemed reluctant to conclude the planes were sabotaged, the press and public were not. "Russia Now Has a Sept. 11," the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta announced in a headline yesterday. "Russian Remake of 9/11," Moskovsky Komsomolets declared.

The question of responsibility for the crashes is a politically charged one.

Suspicion here centers on separatist guerrillas in Chechnya, which is scheduled to hold presidential elections Sunday. Rebels and Islamic radicals have fought against Russian rule for most of the past decade, occasionally staging devastating attacks in Moscow and central Russia.

If the two planes were blown up, it would mark the first attack on passenger aircraft here.

But extremist violence is nothing new to Russia. Bombers thought linked to the Chechen cause have killed an average of at least 10 people a month here in the past 18 months.

Explosives have been planted on buses, trains and the Moscow Metro. Suicide bombers have attacked people at a rock festival, in a hospital and on the sidewalk across from the Kremlin.

Critics are already calling Tuesday's crashes stark evidence that the Kremlin's Chechnya policy has failed. "Judging by everything, before the presidential elections in Chechnya the authorities simply don't want to acknowledge an obvious fact: Terrorist acts of such scale can be organized only by Chechen militants," said Kommersant.

The late Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov, a former rebel leader who switched sides, was the centerpiece of Moscow's strategy of recruiting Chechen politicians and fighters to battle other Chechens.

After Kadyrov's election last October, Russian authorities hoped the small but vicious conflict could remain isolated in the tiny republic. But Chechen extremists seem undeterred.

Kadyrov was killed by a bomb planted under his seat during Russia's Victory Day, May 9. President Vladimir V. Putin has all but openly endorsed Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov as Kadyrov's successor.

Alkhanov, a 47-year-old veteran police official who fought with the Russians against the rebels, is expected to beat the six other candidates handily Sunday.

But separatists have already vowed to treat the victor in Sunday's elections as a traitor and deal with him accordingly.

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