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Russia: Terrorism Or Tragic Accident? Plane Crash Remains Unexplained

Yesterday a Russian passenger jet carrying at least 78 people exploded and crashed into the Black Sea. Russian prosecutors today opened an investigation into whether the crash was an act of terrorism. But as RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports, another theory has been making the rounds -- the possibility the plane was hit by a missile test-fired by the Ukrainian military.

Prague, 5 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Was it a terrorist attack or a tragic accident?

That's what Russian investigators are attempting to find out, one day after a Siberian Airlines Tupolev 154 with at least 78 people on board crashed into the Black Sea en route from Tel Aviv to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

A streak of bobbing debris marks the spot where the jet plunged from some 30,000 feet into the sea, 180 kilometers off the coastal resort of Sochi.

Russian ships rushed to the crash site, where the water is more than one kilometer deep. With conditions for search operations deteriorating at a depth of 100 meters, officials coordinating the rescue effort told Russian TV there is little hope of finding the plane's "black box" recorders. Russia today called on the United States and Israel for help in recovering the black boxes from the plane.

Stunned relatives of the passengers were arriving in Sochi today to wait for news of their loved ones, most of whom were Russian-born Israelis returning home to visit family for a Jewish holiday.

As of this afternoon, rescuers had recovered just 14 bodies. And conclusive answers as to why the tragedy happened may be a long time coming.

The investigation is being headed by Vladimir Rushailo, secretary of Russia's Security Council, who arrived in Sochi late last night with experts from the FSB security service.

This was Rushailo's assessment of the rescue operation today:

"The radius of debris from the crash site is more than 10 kilometers. Today, the task is to bring up as much as possible to the surface. We are also considering the movements of the water and currents. The last thing we have to consider is that many fragments may be lost."

Russian officials initially described the cause of the crash as an "explosion." A top Russian air traffic control official, Viktor Galkin, told ITAR-TASS news agency there had been no signs the plane was suffering from equipment failure before the crash.

The deputy head of Armenia's Aviation Department, Arayik Abgarian, told RFE/RL that the crew of an Armenian passenger jet traveling to Yerevan from Simferopol in the Crimea saw the plane explode in midair.

But in the hours following the crash, multiple theories on the cause of the explosion emerged.

AFP quoted a spokesman for the Black Sea Fleet, Igor Larichev, as saying the 10-year-old jet was brought down by an anti-aircraft missile test-fired by the Ukrainian military during exercises on the Crimean peninsula, which juts into the Black Sea to the northwest of the crash site.

U.S. sources quoted in some Western media -- Reuters and "The Washington Post" -- say a spy satellite did, indeed, detect the heat from a missile at the time of the tragedy. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a U.S. official said it looked like a Ukrainian long-range S-200 missile sought out the plane after missing its target.

Other Ukrainian officials moved quickly to squelch this theory. President Leonid Kuchma assured Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone call that this could not have been the cause of the crash.

Putin also cast doubt on this theory at a news conference yesterday with visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"From the information we have from our Ukrainian partners, [military] exercises were taking place in the area at that time. However, in the first place, all the necessary services were informed of this beforehand. And in the second place, the weapons used could not reach the area of the flight path of our Tupolev 154. All that I have said is based on information received from our Ukrainian partners, and we have no reason not to trust them."

If it was a missile test that went drastically wrong, it wouldn't be the first time in recent years a missile has downed a civilian plane or veered wildly off course.

In 1988, a U.S. Navy cruiser mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner with 290 people on board. And a Soviet fighter jet shot down a Korean passenger jet in 1983 after it entered restricted airspace.

Yesterday's incident over the Black Sea is also reminiscent of an accident 18 months ago, when a Ukrainian Tochka-U missile veered off course and struck an apartment block in Brovary, a small town north of Kyiv. Four people were killed. It took Ukrainian officials four days to admit a missile had caused the blast.

Rival theories aren't the only conflicting reports about yesterday's crash. Adding to the confusion is a report that the airliner had made a stopover in Bulgaria. But this has been denied by Siberian Airline and Bulgarian officials, who say the flight was direct from Tel Aviv with no stopovers or refuelings.

By this morning, the terrorist theory seemed to be gaining ground in Russia with the opening of a criminal investigation into possible terrorism.

Nerves continue to jangle following the 11 September attacks in the United States, so it may be no surprise that Russian authorities are looking at terrorism as a likely cause of the crash.

Putin said yesterday that terrorism could not be ruled out but cautioned against drawing any hasty conclusions.

"Only specialists investigating the crash and forensic tests on the fragments of the plane can make any conclusions on the causes of the tragedy."

The terrorism theory, however, seemed to receive a boost from another report today. Quoting unnamed officials from the Emergency Ministry's North Caucasus branch, Russian media reported that a door recovered from the aircraft and thought to belong to the cockpit shows damage resembling bullet holes.