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Ukraine: Kuchma Reacts Swiftly To Air-Show Catastrophe, Air Force Commanders Blamed

Ukraine is in mourning today for the 83 people killed at an air show disaster on 27 July. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma has fired his armed forces chief of staff, his air force chief, and the commander of the air force division that took part in the show. The air force chief and three other officers have been taken into custody in connection with the crash. The swift reaction is all a far cry from another air disaster last October, when Ukrainian officials denied for days that defense troops had accidentally shot down a Russian civilian airliner over the Black Sea.

Prague, 29 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's reaction to the 27 July air-show disaster in Lviv was swift.

Kuchma broke off his holiday in Crimea to fly to the scene of the disaster, in which 83 people were killed and more than 200 injured. He fired his armed forces chief of staff, Petro Shulyak, air force chief General Viktor Strelnykov, and General Serhiy Onyshchenko, the commander of the 14th air force division, whose 60th anniversary the air show was celebrating.

Today, virtually all air force planes were grounded.

Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Pyskun today said the pilots of the Su-27 fighter jet had been given a "wrong task" by air force commanders, who had not taken into account the necessary safety precautions. "The pilots used a plan given to them by their air commanders. We believe that that plan was wrong. The plan was approved with violations of procedures."

Pyskun called the incident the result of "military negligence" and also said there are signs the pilots themselves were responsible for what he said were "criminal acts."

A commission has been set up to investigate the cause of the crash, the worst air-show disaster in history. The panel is headed by Security Council Secretary Yevgeny Marchuk, who yesterday praised the two pilots as being "top-class."

Top-class pilots they may be, but Volodymyr Toponar and Yuriy Yegorov -- who managed to eject seconds before the crash but are still in hospital -- now face criminal investigation. The Prosecutor-General's Office said it has detained several top officers, including Strelnykov.

The swiftness of the official reaction is a far cry from the obstinate denials that initially followed another air tragedy last October. Then, Ukrainian troops on military exercises accidentally shot down a Russian passenger plane over the Black Sea, killing all 78 on board. It took several days before the authorities accepted responsibility.

Generous commentators suggested the authorities had learned from that incident and from another tragedy, in Russia. Kuchma's hasty return was contrasted with Russian President Vladimir Putin's widely criticized decision to stay on vacation after the "Kursk" nuclear submarine sank two years ago in the Barents Sea, killing all on board.

But Kuchma was wrong if he thought his swift response would head off criticism. "Was there really any reason to organize a grandiose show for the 60th anniversary?" asked commentator Vasilii Georgiev in the "Vechernie Vesti" newspaper. "Are we a rich country that can afford this? Or do people need bread and circuses?"

"Kuchma has ruined the army to its core, just as with almost everything good that remained after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now he has found the little men [responsible] and has made a show of punishing them. Only the main, albeit indirect, guilty party in this terrible tragedy is he himself -- Leonid Kuchma. Incompetence long ago replaced real professionalism in the Kuchma system of power. And this has cost the lives of innocent people."

Not surprisingly, one prominent opposition politician -- Yuliya Tymoshenko -- said Kuchma should resign over the tragedy.

Taras Vozniak is a political commentator from Lviv. He says the mood in the city is somber rather than angry and that people have no stomach to bring politics into it. "Today at the airport I saw someone trying to turn the talk into a political debate, but people just didn't accept it. They pushed it away. Yesterday there was an incident with our opposition politician Yuliya Tymoshenko. She arrived here, and her whole talk was about how in principle the authorities were responsible for this or something like that. But she didn't find much understanding [for this position] here."

He says people in the city want to get on with the business of tending to the injured and paying their respects to the dead. "There's a lot of work going on, starting with medical help for those who still need it, and ending with the sad business of funerals. There are clerics from various confessions here, leading funeral services. Today, there was a kind of spontaneous memorial service on the place where the airplane crashed. People were let in and they prayed, some crying. Politics isn't entering into it, and thank God for that."

One expert on military affairs, Leonid Polyakov, told RFE/RL that the tragedy showed the extent of the crisis in the country's national security, as well as its army. Another told Ukrainian television that there is little, if any, actual air training for pilots due to a lack of fuel.

The first victims of the tragedy were buried today, and spontaneous memorial services were staged at the crash scene.

Marchuk's commission is due to present its findings on the cause of the crash on 7 August.

(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)