Ter­ror eyed as teams search for plane crash vic­tims


SOCHI, RUSSIA | Backed by ships, he­li­copters and drones, Rus­sian res­cue teams searched for vic­tims in the Black Sea af­ter a Rus­sian plane car­ry­ing 92 peo­ple to Syria crashed Sun­day shortly af­ter take­off from Sochi.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors said they are look­ing into every pos­si­ble cause for the crash, in­clud­ing a ter­ror­ist at­tack.

All 84 pas­sen­gers and eight crew mem­bers on board the Tu-154 plane op­er­ated by the Rus­sian mil­i­tary are be­lieved to have died when it fell into the sea two min­utes af­ter tak­ing off in good weather from the south­ern Rus­sian city. Emer­gency crews found frag­ments of the plane less than one mile from shore. By Sun­day af­ter­noon, res­cue teams had re­cov­ered 10 bod­ies.

Asked if a ter­ror­ist at­tack was sus­pected, Trans­port Min­is­ter Maxim Sokolov said in Sochi that in­ves­ti­ga­tors were look­ing into every pos­si­ble cause.

The plane be­longed to the De­fense Min­istry and was tak­ing its world-fa­mous army choir, the Alexan­drov Ensem­ble, to a New Year’s con­cert at He­meimeem air base in Syria’s coastal prov­ince of Latakia. Those on board also in­cluded nine Rus­sian jour­nal­ists and a Rus­sian doc­tor fa­mous for her work in war zones.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin went on tele­vi­sion to de­clare Mon­day a na­tion­wide day of mourn­ing.

“We will con­duct a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the rea­sons and will do ev­ery­thing to sup­port the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies,” Mr. Putin said.

Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Dmitry Medvedev de­scribed the crash as a “ter­ri­ble tragedy.”

More than 3,000 peo­ple — in­clud­ing dozens of divers — worked from 27 ships and sev­eral he­li­copters to search the crash site, the De­fense Min­istry said.

Drones flew over to help spot bod­ies and de­bris. About 100 more divers were flown in from naval fa­cil­i­ties across Russia, and pow­er­ful spot­lights were brought in so the search could con­tinue around the clock.

Magomed Tol­boyev, a dec­o­rated Rus­sian test pi­lot, said the cir­cum­stances of the crash in­di­cated that all on board had died.

“There is no chance to sur­vive in such sit­u­a­tion,” he said, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­fax news agency. “The plane gets in­stantly blown into pieces.”

The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built three­engine air­liner de­signed in the late 1960s. More than 1,000 have been built, and they have been used ex­ten­sively by car­ri­ers in Russia and world­wide. The plane that crashed was built in 1983 and un­der­went fac­tory check­ups and main­te­nance in 2014 and ear­lier this year, ac­cord­ing to the De­fense Min­istry.

Se­nior Rus­sian law­mak­ers ruled out a ter­ror­ist at­tack, ar­gu­ing that the mil­i­tary plane was tightly se­cured. But Mr. Sokolov, the min­is­ter over­see­ing the res­cue ef­forts in Sochi, said in­ves­ti­ga­tors were con­sid­er­ing all pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Some an­a­lysts noted that the crew’s fail­ure to re­port a mal­func­tion pointed at a pos­si­ble ter­ror­ist at­tack.

“Pos­si­ble mal­func­tions … cer­tainly wouldn’t have pre­vented the crew from re­port­ing them,” Vi­taly An­dreyev, a for­mer se­nior Rus­sian air traf­fic con­troller, told RIA Novosti. He added that it points to an “ex­ter­nal im­pact.”

Rus­sian planes have been brought down pre­vi­ously by ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

In Oc­to­ber 2015, a Rus­sian pas­sen­ger plane car­ry­ing mostly Rus­sian tourists back from va­ca­tion in Egypt was brought down by a bomb over the Si­nai Penin­sula, killing all 224 peo­ple aboard. Of­fi­cials said the ex­plo­sive de­vice was planted in the plane’s lug­gage com­part­ment. The lo­cal af­fil­i­ate of the Is­lamic State claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity.

In Au­gust 2004, sui­cide bombers blew up two Rus­sian planes in the skies over Russia, killing 89 peo­ple. A Chechen war­lord claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the twin at­tacks.

The Rus­sian mil­i­tary re­peat­edly has flown groups of Rus­sian singers and artists to per­form at He­meimeem, which serves as the main hub for the Rus­sian air cam­paign in Syria. New Year’s is the main hol­i­day for most Rus­sians.

The pas­sen­ger list for the Sochi plane re­leased by the De­fense Min­istry in­cluded 64 mem­bers of the Alexan­drov Ensem­ble, in­clud­ing its leader, Valery Khalilov. The ensem­ble, of­ten re­ferred to as the Red Army choir, is the of­fi­cial choir of the Rus­sian mil­i­tary and in­cludes a band and a dance com­pany. The choir sang “Get Lucky” at the open­ing of the 2014 Win­ter Olympic Games that Russia hosted in Sochi, be­com­ing an in­stant on­line sen­sa­tion.

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