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All 92 onboard killed, including 64 from choir

Syria-bound Russia jet crashes

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

MOSCOW: 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

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