Russia dis­misses fears of ter­ror af­ter air­liner crashes into sea.

Day of mourn­ing for 92 pas­sen­gers

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV AND VERONIKA SILCHENKO

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.

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