Jet wreckage bears traces of explosive

2 Chechen passengers named as possible suspects

August 28, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Authorities said yesterday that they are focusing on two female Chechen passengers aboard the Russian airliners that crashed Tuesday night, while investigators said they had found traces of explosives on the wreckage of one of the flights, raising suspicions that the planes were brought down by suicide bombers.

Sergei Ignatchenko, chief spokesman for the Federal Security Service, or FSB, told reporters that at least one of the aircraft had been the target of a "terrorist attack," citing the discovery of small amounts of hexogen, a high explosive, on wreckage at one of the crash sites.

Other investigators confirmed that they were seeking more information about the two Chechen women, each a passenger on one of the Soviet-era passenger jets. Authorities said both women booked tickets at the last minute, and neither woman's relatives have contacted authorities.

Chechen women strapped with explosives have carried out a dozen or more attacks on Russian targets over the past four years, killing more than 200. The bombers have been dubbed "black widows" because some were the wives or relatives of separatist fighters killed by Russia's federal forces.


FSB officials told the Interfax news service yesterday that they were searching for relatives of Amanty Nigayeva, a 27-year-old Chechen. She purchased a ticket on the Volga Avia Express flight an hour before the plane departed from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport, heading south to the city of Volgograd.

The twin-engine, Tupolev 134 jet airliner disintegrated in mid-flight about 120 miles southeast of Moscow. Witnesses reported that three large explosions preceded the crash.

Investigators said they weren't certain yesterday why Nigayeva was headed to Volgograd and that no one was waiting for her at the airport Tuesday night.

Investigators also are seeking friends and family of another Chechen woman, identified only as S. Dzhebirkhanova.

"We do not have information that she was a terrorist," Transport Minister Igor Levitin, chairman of the investigating commission, cautioned yesterday. But Dzhebirkhanova registered for Siberian Airlines' Tupolev 154 flight under a pseudonym, authorities said, in an apparent effort to hide that she was from Chechnya, and she purchased her ticket shortly before the flight took off.

Itar-Tass quoted a member of the investigating commission as saying the presence of the two Chechens on the doomed flights "could not but help raise suspicions."

The Siberian Airlines flight broke up in midair while flying south from Moscow to Sochi, a resort city on the Black Sea. Debris was scattered over a 12-mile path near the city of Rostov-on-Don, about 600 miles south of Moscow.

Rescuers are having trouble locating Dzhebirkhanova's body, according to Russian media reports, suggesting that she may have been close to the explosion when it occurred.

Interfax, quoting unnamed aviation officials yesterday, said the crew of the Siberian Airlines flight sent out a distress signal and tripped a separate hijacking alarm shortly before the plane disappeared from radar screens.

NTV reported that the crew sent out three separate hijacking alarms. But no one aboard the plane had the chance to speak with controllers before the plane went down.

Meanwhile, an al-Qaida-linked group calling itself the Islambuli Brigade claimed responsibility for the crashes in a statement posted on an Arabic-language Web site. The FSB's Ignatchenko declined to comment, saying that the statement's "authenticity has not been established yet."

The Cairo-based group declared that it would continue to attack Russian targets until Moscow halts its five-year-old military campaign against Chechen separatists. "Russia's slaughtering of Muslims is still continuing and will not end except with a bloody war," the Web statement said.

The Islambuli Brigade surfaced July 30, when it claimed responsibility for an unsuccessful effort to assassinate Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz. A suicide bomber threw himself at Shaukat's passing car in the rural Punjab region of Pakistan. Aziz was recently elected prime minister.

The group claimed to have organized two teams of five members each to hijack the planes.

If the Cairo group's claim is true, it would signal a drastic strengthening of the collaboration between Chechen Muslims and foreign radicals. Chechens have been careful to keep their struggle against Russia separate from the attacks by al-Qaida.

For two days after the near-simultaneous crashes, officials seemed determined to allay fears that the incidents were part of a militant assault, reminiscent of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Investigators suggested - apparently, with little or no evidence - that the planes might have crashed because of contaminated fuel, mechanical failure or pilot error.

Government criticized

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.