Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has slammed Russia's poor record on aviation safety and demanded a thorough probe into a plane crash that killed at least 43 people, including the star-studded international lineup of a top hockey team.
Medvedev visited the crash site of the Yak-42 passenger plane that went down at takeoff near the city of Yaroslavl, some 300 kilometers northeast of Moscow, on August 7.
Two survivors were said to be in critical condition, with extensive burns and other injuries. Reports suggested that Russian player Aleksandr Galimov was battling for his life, along with another survivor, crew member Aleksandr Sizov.
Authorities in Yaroslavl have declared three days of mourning for the crash victims.
"This is a shock to the whole country, as is usually the case with such catastrophes," Medvedev said, "but there is also an additional point -- on board the plane was a team that was beloved not only in Yaroslavl but across the country, one of the best, most successful clubs in our country. This is a great loss not only for all the families, but for the entire state and for all fans."
Medvedev also called for a sharp reduction in the number of domestic air companies, adding that if the country could not produce reliable aircraft it would have to buy foreign-made planes.
"We cannot go on like that," Medvedev told officials at the scene, including the ministers of Transport and of Emergency Situations, Igor Levitin and Sergei Shoigu. "We need to create modern companies that will cover all of Russia."
With 121 people dead in seven crashes, Russia has become the most dangerous country for air travel this year.
The plane was carrying the entire contingent of players and coaches for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, a three-time champion of Russia's top ice-hockey division, the Kontinental Hockey League, , which groups 20 Russian teams and four from Belarus (Dinamo Minsk), Kazakhstan (Barys Astana), Latvia (Dinamo Riga), and Slovakia (Lev Poprad).
Medvedev had been due to address a political conference in Yaroslavl, at Lokomotiv's hockey arena, which has now become the sight of a candlelight memorial to the victims of the tragedy.
The crash took place in what were said to be clear weather conditions, and marks the second major air disaster in Russia this year, casts another shadow on Russia's dubious air-safety record.
Eyewitness reports from the scene suggested the aircraft labored to get airborne before falling and breaking apart.
The flight recorders of the plane have not yet been recovered.
Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika has ordered an investigation into transport safety legislation compliance by Yak Service, the company that owned the Soviet-designed Yak-42 passenger plane, as well as the airport and transport administration services.
The head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Rene Fasel, called it the "darkest day in the history of our sport."
Players or coaches who died in the fiery crash came from at least eight countries: Belarus, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.
Similar makeshift memorials have been set up in towns and cities in many of the victims' home countries, including Prague, Bratislava, and Minsk.
Russian Ice Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretyak offered condolences to victims' families and the devastated hockey club, describing it as "a big loss for Russia's hockey because there were a lot of good players on the team."
This crash is likely to have a severe impact on Russian hockey. Lokomotiv has been a top contender in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Billionaire businessmen and large companies have been pumping money into the league formed in 2008, improving arenas and raising salaries in an effort to retain local players and recruit stars from abroad.
The team was headed to the Belarusian capital, where they were to play their season opener.
Alyaksey Torbin, the director general of the team Lokomotiv was to play, Dinamo Minsk, offered his condolences.
"For us it's a real shock, we'd like to offer our deepest condolences to the families of those who died," Torbin said. "Club Lokomotiv was one of the strongest clubs in the hockey league and the audience here were really looking forward to the match and we were fully booked for [the match with] Lokomotiv."
After the tragedy, the league announced its decision to postpone the start of its season, with news to follow of the revised opening dates and schedule.
"The opening games will be postponed indefinitely, following a decision taken by President Alexander Medvedev and the chairman of the board of directors Vyacheslav Fetisov on Thursday morning. Information about future game schedules will be announced in the near future," the Kontinental Hockey League said on its website.
Media in the countries most affected quickly filled with tributes to the victims, some of them former world or Olympic champions idolized by youngsters and hockey fans and highly respected as belonging in the top echelon of the international ice-hockey community.
The list of dead passengers includes: Canadian coach Brad McCrimmon; Pavol Demitra, captain of the Slovak national team and a 16-year NHL veteran; Belarusian NHL veteran Ruslan Salei; Russians Alyaksandr Vasyunov, Igor Korolev, and Aleksandr Karpovtsev; Latvian Karlis Skrastins; Swedish goalee Stefan Liv; and Czechs Karel Rachunek, Jan Marek, and Josef Vasicek.
Former Czech national team coach Alois Hadamczik told a Czech radio station that Marek had told him two weeks ago that with the recent birth of a child he wanted to get out of the Russian league and return to Prague.
"They were not only excellent hockey players, but great friends and people," Tomas Kral, head of Czech hockey, said of the Czech trio.
The three days of mourning announced by Yaroslavl officials was to begin on September 9.
written by Andy Heil and Antoine Blua based on RFE/RL and local and international agency reports; with contributions from Tom Balmforth in Moscow