Prague, 26 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is in mourning for the 89 people who died when two jet airliners crashed almost simultaneously in southern Russia on 24 August.
Flags are flying at half-mast around the country, and broadcast media outlets are playing somber programming. President Vladimir Putin has returned to Moscow from a Black Sea holiday and has set up an official panel to investigate the crashes.
"I want to express my condolences to the relatives of the victims. I signed an order today appointing Transport Minister Igor Levitin as the head of the commission investigating the causes of the accidents. I hope the commission will obtain objective and accurate information about what happened and provide help to all those who need it," Putin said.
Levitin said in Moscow that his panel is traveling to the region and beginning work immediately. "All members of the government commission are now flying out to the disaster region, to Tula and then to Rostov," he said. "Their task is to help the families of the victims, to coordinate with local authorities, and to establish cooperation with investigative teams working in the region."
But the mystery persists. What could cause two passenger jets to crash within minutes of one another in different areas of southern Russia?
Both airliners started their flights at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport. One plane, a Sibir Airlines Tu-154 with 46 people aboard, was on a flight to Sochi. The other, a Volga-Aviaekspress Tu-134 with 43 passengers, was on its way to Volgograd.
"Some data from the flight recorders has already been deciphered. So, I think, at least from the technical point of view, with the participation of the state commission [investigating the matter] and special services, the investigators will be able to obtain comprehensive information about the technical causes of the accidents."
Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov met yesterday with top security and transport officials in Moscow and said that nothing is being ruled out. "We are considering a number of possible causes, including a terror act, a technical problem and the human factor," he said. "I will not go through all of them now, but we do not rule out any possibility today."
Experts have been sifting through the wreckage at the crash sites. At one of the sites -- that of the Tu-154 -- wreckage is dispersed over a wide area, suggesting the possibility of a midair explosion. Sibir Airlines has said an emergency signal was activated by the crew shortly before the plane disappeared from radar screens.
The flight recorders have been recovered from both wrecks and are now being studied. The so-called black boxes contain data that could help establish what happened to the planes' technical systems. "Some data from the flight recorders has already been deciphered. So, I think, at least from the technical point of view, with the participation of the state commission [investigating the matter] and special services, the investigators will be able to obtain comprehensive information about the technical causes of the accidents," Ustinov said.
Transport Minister Levitin said some of the flight recorders are in bad condition and cannot be immediately read. He said experts are continuing to work on them.
Russian authorities have reacted to the crashes with restraint, appearing to play down the possibility of terrorist attacks. Many in the Russian media have reacted to the official line with some scorn, pointing out the extraordinary coincidence and seeing a similarity to the 11 September hijackings in the United States in 2001.
Public suspicion about terrorism is strengthened by the fact that the double crash came just a few days before this weekend's presidential election in the violence-torn Russian republic of Chechnya.
Chechens will be choosing a replacement for Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow president who was assassinated by separatists in May. The separatists have stepped up the level of their attacks in the past few weeks and have vowed to disrupt the election.
Dov Lynch is a senior Russian affairs analyst at the European Union's Institute for Security Affairs. He told RFE/RL that, indeed, it is hard to believe there is no connection between the crashes and political events. "There is a coincidence of timing in two separate events like that which seems too big for one to ignore," he said. "It would also make sense for [Chechen separatists to stage] some kind of event a few days before the elections. This is the sort of pattern the Chechen separatists have used in the past."
However, Lynch said the safety record of Russian civil aviation is such that genuine accidents cannot be ruled out.
The United States says it has offered Moscow help in establishing the causes of the two crashes. The offer was made in a telephone call by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.