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Russia Holds Day Of Mourning After 92 Killed In Plane Crash, Putin Orders Probe

RFE/RL December 25, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that December 26 will be a national day of mourning after a Russian military plane crashed in the Black Sea, killing all 92 people on board.

Search and recovery operations were continuing late on December 25 after a Russian military plane -- carrying members of a prominent armed forces song-and-dance ensemble to Syria for a New Year's concert -- crashed near the southern city of Sochi.

In the Russian capital, mourners laid flowers and candles throughout the day in front of the Moscow concert hall where the ensemble usually performed.

Russia's Defense Ministry said there was no sign of any survivors at the crash site, where debris and 11 bodies have been found.

The Soviet-made TU-154 airplane had vanished from radar screens shortly after taking off at 5:40 a.m. local time on December 25 from the southern city of Sochi. It was flying to Russia's Hmeimim airbase outside the coastal Syrian city of Latakia.

Russian Transport Minister Maksim Sokolov, the head of a state commission probing the incident, said investigators were looking into every possible reason for the crash, although officials had earlier ruled out terrorism.

Putin "has ordered Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to form and head a state commission to investigative the crash of the Tu-154 plane," the Kremlin said in a statement on December 25.

"I would like to express the most sincere condolences to the families of our citizens killed this morning," Putin told reporters in St. Petersburg. "A thorough investigation of the causes of the crash will be carried out and everything will be done to support the families of those killed."

Medvedev described the crash as a "terrible tragedy."

Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov told a news briefing in Moscow that the "area of the crash of the Tu-154 plane has been determined" but "there were no survivors seen."

Dozens of ships, drones, and divers are searching for more bodies. Around 3,000 people were participating in the search and recovery operations.

Earlier, the ministry said that "fragments … of the plane were found 1.5 kilometers from the Black Sea coast of the city of Sochi at a depth of 50 to 70 meters."

The Defense Ministry has released a list of the passengers. They include 64 members of the Aleksandrov Ensemble, the official army choir of the Russian armed forces. The ensemble's conductor Valery Khalilov was among the passengers.

Konashenkov said the ensemble members had been flying to Latakia for a New Year's performance for Russian troops deployed in Syria.

Nine Russian reporters were also been on board as well as military servicemen. The state-run TV stations First Channel, NTV, and Zvezda said they each had three staff onboard the flight.

The passenger list also includes Elizaveta Glinka, known as Doctor Liza, a prominent activist and member of Putin's advisory human rights council.

The ministry said 84 people aboard the aircraft were passengers and eight were crew members. The flight originated in the capital, Moscow, and had a stopover in Sochi for refueling.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters it was too early to say what had caused the crash.

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 were questioning the technical personnel responsible for preparing the plane for take-off, the committee said.

Sokolov said the airplane's black boxes had yet to be located.

The Tu-154 is a Soviet-era plane which has a checkered past in terms of accidents. The plane, which has not been in commercial use since 1994, is still used by the military.

The Tu-154 has been involved in almost a dozen major crashes since 2000, killing more than 800 people, including Poland's then-president Lech Kaczynski near the Russian city of Smolensk in 2010.

Deputy Defense Minister Pavel Popov has flown to Sochi along with a team tasked with clarifying the circumstances surrounding the crash, spokesman Konashenkov said.

Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense affairs committee at the upper house of the Russian parliament, said he "totally excludes" terrorism as a possible cause of the crash.

In remarks carried by the state news agency RIA Novosti, Ozerov -- without citing any source -- 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.

According to the Defense Ministry, 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, the ministry said.

The Interfax news agency cited an unnamed source as saying the plane had not sent an SOS signal.

With reporting by TASS, Interfax, Reuters, AP, AFP, and BBC

Source: aleksandrov-ensemble/28195683.html

Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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