SYRIA-BOUND RUS­SIA JET CRASHES All 92 on­board killed, in­clud­ing 64 from choir

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

A Rus­sian mil­i­tary plane head­ing to Syria crashed into the Black Sea yes­ter­day, with no sign of sur­vivors among the 92 on board, in­clud­ing Red Army Choir mem­bers on their way to cel­e­brate the New Year with troops. The Tu-154 plane went down shortly af­ter tak­ing off from the south­ern city of Adler where it had been re­fu­el­ing, de­fense min­istry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a brief­ing broad­cast on the min­istry’s web­site.

It dis­ap­peared from radar just two min­utes af­ter it took off at 5:25 am (0225 GMT). The min­istry told agen­cies there was no sign of any sur­vivors at the crash site and that 10 bod­ies had been re­cov­ered off the coast of the re­sort city of Sochi, as au­thor­i­ties pledged to dis­patch an ad­di­tional 100 divers to aid in the search. “Frag­ments of the Tu-154 plane of the Rus­sian de­fense min­istry were found 1.5 kilo­me­ters from the Black Sea coast of the city of Sochi at a depth of 50 to 70 me­ters,” the min­istry said.

Ma­jor-Gen­eral Igor Konashenkov, a min­istry spokesman, told re­porters that no­body had sur­vived. “The area of the crash site has been es­tab­lished. No sur­vivors have been spot­ted,” he said. An un­named min­istry source told Rus­sian news agen­cies no life rafts had been found, while an­other source told the In­ter­fax agency that the plane had not sent an SOS sig­nal.

Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin told state tele­vi­sion that Rus­sia will ob­serve a na­tional day of mourn­ing to­day. The plane had been on a rou­tine flight to Rus­sia’s Hmeimim air base in west­ern Syria, which has been used to launch air strikes in Moscow’s mil­i­tary cam­paign sup­port­ing its ally Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad in the coun­try’s dev­as­tat­ing civil war. Among the plane’s 84 pas­sen­gers were Rus­sian ser­vice­men as well as 64 mem­bers of the Alexan­drov Ensem­ble, the army’s of­fi­cial mu­si­cal group also known as the Red Army Choir, and its con­duc­tor Valery Khalilov.

They were headed to Syria to par­tic­i­pate in New Year cel­e­bra­tions at the air base. Mourn­ers laid flow­ers and can­dles through­out the day in front of the Moscow con­cert hall where the Red Army Choir usu­ally per­forms in the Rus­sian cap­i­tal. Trans­port Min­is­ter Maxim Sokolov, in charge of a state probe into the crash, said on state tele­vi­sion that in­ves­ti­ga­tors were look­ing into a “whole spec­trum” of the­o­ries on the cause of the crash. When asked if a ter­ror at­tack could have been be­hind the crash, Sokolov said: “It is pre­ma­ture to speak of this.” He added that the air­craft’s black boxes had yet to be found.

The pas­sen­gers also in­cluded nine jour­nal­ists, with state-run chan­nels Pervy Kanal, NTV and Zvezda say­ing they each had three staff on­board the flight. There were also eight crew mem­bers, the min­istry said. A list of pas­sen­gers pub­lished by the de­fense min­istry also in­cluded El­iza­veta Glinka, a doc­tor and char­ity worker who serves on the Krem­lin hu­man rights coun­cil. Mikhail Fe­do­tov, who heads the coun­cil, said Glinka was trav­el­ling to Syria to bring med­i­ca­tion to a univer­sity hos­pi­tal in the coastal city of Latakia near the air base, agen­cies re­ported.

As­sad, as well as Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, Turk­ish Prime Min­is­ter Bi­nali Yildirim and the US Em­bassy in Moscow, ex­pressed con­do­lences over the crash. Krem­lin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin was be­ing kept up­dated on the search op­er­a­tion and was in con­stant con­tact with De­fence Min­is­ter Sergei Shoigu. Konashenkov said that deputy de­fense min­is­ter Pavel Popov had flown to Adler along with a team tasked with clar­i­fy­ing the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the crash.

He later added that 32 ships, 80 divers, five he­li­copters and drones had been dis­patched to the area to take part in the search op­er­a­tion. Pic­tures from the scene showed res­cue work­ers car­ry­ing bod­ies on stretch­ers on a pier in Sochi. The trans­port min­istry said the bod­ies re­cov­ered from the crash site would be sent to Moscow for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Ac­cord­ing to Konashenkov, the air­craft had been in ser­vice since 1983 and had flown some 7,000 hours since. The plane last un­der­went re­pairs in De­cem­ber 2014 and was ser­viced in Septem­ber, he said.

Rus­sia’s In­ves­tiga­tive Com­mit­tee said a crim­i­nal probe had been launched to de­ter­mine whether vi­o­la­tions of air trans­port safety reg­u­la­tions had led to the crash. In­ves­ti­ga­tors are cur­rently ques­tion­ing the tech­ni­cal per­son­nel re­spon­si­ble for pre­par­ing the plane for take-off, the com­mit­tee said. Vik­tor Oze­rov, head of the de­fense af­fairs com­mit­tee at the up­per house of Rus­sian par­lia­ment, said the crash could have been caused by a tech­ni­cal mal­func­tion or a crew er­ror, but he be­lieves it could not have been ter­ror­ism be­cause the plane was op­er­ated by the mil­i­tary. “I to­tally ex­clude” the idea of an at­tack bring­ing down the plane, he said in re­marks car­ried by state RIA Novosti news agency.

Tu-154 air­craft have been in­volved in a num­ber of ac­ci­dents in the past. In April 2010 many high-rank­ing Pol­ish of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing then pres­i­dent Lech Kaczyn­ski, were killed when a Tu-154 air­liner went down in thick fog while ap­proach­ing Smolensk air­port in west­ern Rus­sia.

Moscow has been con­duct­ing a bomb­ing cam­paign in Syria in sup­port of As­sad since Septem­ber 2015 and has taken steps to boost its pres­ence in the coun­try. In Oc­to­ber, Putin ap­proved a law rat­i­fy­ing Moscow’s deal with Da­m­as­cus to de­ploy its forces in the coun­try in­def­i­nitely, firm­ing up Rus­sia’s long-term pres­ence in Syria. Rus­sian war­planes have flown out of the Hmeimim base to con­duct air strikes, and the base is also home to an S-400 air de­fense sys­tem. — Agen­cies

SOCHI: Rus­sian res­cuers carry a stretcher with a re­cov­ered body on a pier af­ter a Rus­sian mil­i­tary plane crashed in the Black Sea yes­ter­day. — AFP

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