Russia dismisses fears of terror after airliner crashes into sea.
Day of mourning for 92 passengers
SOCHI, RUSSIA | The Kremlin on Monday played down the possibility that a terror attack might have downed a Syria-bound Russian plane, killing all 92 people on board, as the nation observed a day of mourning for the victims, including most members of a world-famous military choir.
The Tu-154 owned by the Russian Defense Ministry crashed into the Black Sea early Sunday two minutes after taking off in good weather from the city of Sochi. The plane was carrying members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, often referred to as the Red Army Choir, to a New Year’s concert at a Russian military base in Syria.
About 3,500 people, 43 ships and 182 divers have been sweeping a vast crash site for bodies of the victims and debris, and dozens of drones and several submersibles also have been involved in the search. Rescue teams so far have recovered 11 bodies and numerous body fragments, which have been flown to Moscow for identification.
Divers have located parts of the plane’s fuselage and other fragments, but the search for the jet’s flight recorders will likely prove challenging as they lack underwater locator beacons for easy spotting common in more modern planes.
Officials sought to squelch speculation that the crash might have been caused by a bomb planted on board or a portable air defense missile. But some aviation experts pointed that the crew’s failure to communicate any technical problem and a large area over which fragments of the plane were scattered point at a possible explosion on board.
Evidence of a bombing of a Syria-bound military flight would badly embarrass the Kremlin, highlighting Russia’s extreme vulnerability to attacks even as it boasts its success in Syria after Aleppo fell into the hands of President Bashar Assad, a longtime Moscow ally.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that an attack isn’t a likely scenario. Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov, who oversaw the rescue efforts, said investigators were looking into a possible technical fault or pilot error as the most likely reasons behind the crash.
But some experts remained skeptical, noting that the crew would have reported any technical glitch.
“Possible malfunctions ... certainly wouldn’t have prevented the crew from reporting them,” Vitaly Andreyev, a former senior Russian air traffic controller, told RIA Novosti, adding that an “external impact” was the most likely reason.
Russia’s main domestic security and counter-terrorism agency, the FSB, said it has found “no indications or facts pointing at the possibility of a terror attack or an act of sabotage on board the plane.”
The plane departed from the Chkalovsky military airport just outside Moscow and stopped in Sochi for refueling early Sunday. The FSB said border guards and military servicemen were protecting the plane as it sat on the tarmac in Sochi, and the chief pilot along with the flight engineer personally monitored the refueling. The agency said that a border guard officer and a customs official were the only ones to briefly come on board in Sochi.
Some Russian media pointed at lax security at Chkalovsky outside Moscow where the plane was based, saying that it’s quite porous compared to civilian airports.
Alexander Gusak, a former chief of the FSB special forces unit, also hinted at security breaches at Chkalovsky and said that even a much more secure Sochi airport could be vulnerable.
“It’s possible to penetrate any facility. It depends on your skills,” Mr. Gusak told Dozhd TV.