Russia investigates possibility of terrorism in twin plane crashes

Emergency workers search at the crash site of a Russian Tu-134 near the village of Buchalki in the Tula region, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2004. Emergency officials said there were 43 people aboard the Tu-134 airliner which crashed in the Tula region, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Moscow. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

Emergency workers search at the crash site of a Russian Tu-134 near the village of Buchalki in the Tula region, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2004. Emergency officials said there were 43 people aboard the Tu-134 airliner which crashed in the Tula region, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of Moscow. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

BUCHALKI, Russia (AP) - Russian emergency workers searched heaps of twisted metal and tall grass Wednesday for clues about what caused two airliners to plunge to earth within minutes of each other, killing all 89 people aboard. Officials said one jet sent a hijack distress signal, raising fears terrorists had struck.

Flight recorders from both planes were found and taken to Moscow for investigation, ITAR-Tass reported, indicating the question of what caused the twin disasters soon could be answered.

Russian security authorities said that explosives specialists were still working at the scene of the crashes. They reported that terrorism remained a possible cause, although there was no evidence so far that terrorists were behind the tragedies.

Federal Security Service spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko said investigators were still questioning airport officials and airline and security employees at Domodedovo Airport, from which both flights left 45 minutes apart.

The airport on Moscow's far south side operates a single terminal that serves both international and domestic flights. Both flights were serviced at and left from the domestic section.

The service, known as the FSB, is a successor agency to the KGB. Officials there said they were investigating other possibilities such as technical failures, the use of poor quality fuel, breaches of fueling regulations and pilot error. Rain and thunder was reported in the regions where both crashes occurred.

Rebels fighting a protracted war for independence for Chechnya, the troubled southern Russian province, have been blamed for a series of terror strikes that have claimed hundreds of lives in Russia in recent years. But rebel representative Akhmed Zakayev told Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio from London that Chechen forces and rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov were not connected to the crashes.

Russian officials had expressed concern that separatists in the war-ravaged republic might carry out attacks ahead of a regional election Sunday to replace its pro-Moscow president who was killed in a May bombing.

A Sibir airlines Tu-154 jet, carrying 46 people, took off from Moscow's newly redeveloped Domodedovo airport at 9:35 p.m. Tuesday and the other plane, a Tu-134 carrying 43 people, left 40 minutes later, according to state-run Rossiya television. The Tu-134 was headed to the southern city of Volgograd, while the other plane was flying to the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, where President Vladimir Putin is vacationing.

Putin returned to Moscow Wednesday night, despite being scheduled to play host to the leaders of France and Germany in Sochi early next week.

The planes disappeared from radar screens about 11:00 p.m., and by early Wednesday morning, the wreckage of both had been found - with no survivors. Domodedovo airport said in a statement that both planes "went through the standard procedure of preparation for flight ... (and) the procedures were carried out properly."

Uncertainty over the cause of the crashes came after Sibir said that it was notified that its jet had activated a hijack or seizure signal shortly before disappearing from radar screens. Officials said the crew of the other plane gave no indication that anything was wrong, but witnesses on the ground reported hearing a series of explosions.

"There were three loud bangs on the window, like someone knocking," said Nikolai Gorokhov, a local resident who was in his home at the time of the crash.

Putin ordered an investigation by the FSB, and security was tightened at Russian airports, where extra security officers and sniffer dogs were called in to check passengers and luggage, as well as other transport hubs and public places. The FSB sent experts to determine if explosions caused the crashes, Interfax reported.

At about the same time the Tu-154 disappeared, the Tu-134 airliner crashed in the Tula region, about 125 miles south of Moscow, officials said. ITAR-Tass reported that the authorities believe the Tu-134 fell from an altitude of 32,800 feet. Wreckage of the Sochi-bound Tu-154 was found in the Rostov region, about 600 miles south of Moscow about nine hours after it disappeared.

Rescuers quickly found the Tu-134's wreckage - a heap of metal lying upside down in a large hay field, its tail severed from the fuselage. An AP reporter saw one body bag lying near the tail, holding a charred corpse. Emergency Ministry officers wearing camouflage and red berets stood shoulder-to-shoulder and combed the tall grass for pieces of the broken plane.

Maj. Gen. Gennady Skachkov of the Emergency Situations Ministry told AP at the scene near the village of Buchalki that most of the bodies were still in the cabin, but several had been thrown into the field. He refused to speculate on the cause of the crash but said the crew had given no warning.

Officials made conflicting statements about whether the signal from the other jet indicated a hijacking or another severe problem on the aircraft.

The Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies later quoted an unnamed law enforcement source as saying that the signal was an SOS and that no other signals were sent.

Oleg Yermolov, deputy director of the Interstate Aviation Committee, said that it is impossible to judge what is behind the signal, which merely indicates "a dangerous situation onboard" and can be triggered by the crew during a hijacking or a potentially catastrophic technical problem.

Sibir airlines, however, seemed to hint at foul play, saying on its Web site that it "does not rule out the theory of a terrorist attack."

The Emergency Situation Ministry's Rostov regional chief Viktor Shkareda told AP the plane apparently broke up in the air and that wreckage was spread over an area of some 25-30 miles, but the fuselage and tail lay a few hundred yards apart at the edge of a forest. Bodies lay near the plane, but most of the victims' bodies were trapped in the mangled fuselage. The crash was found near Gluboky, a village north of the regional capital Rostov-on-Don.

Siber said the Tu-134 belonged to small regional airline Volga-Aviaexpress and was being piloted by the company's director.

Interfax quoted a Domodedovo airport spokesman as saying no foreigners were on the passenger lists for either plane. But a spokesman for the Israeli embassy said an Israeli citizen, David Coen, was on the Volgograd-bound jet.


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