120 killed as jet crashes in wilds of Siberia

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The Independent Online
NEW YEAR celebrations turned to national mourning yesterday after a Russian airliner crashed in the Siberian wilderness, killing all 120 people on board. The accident, outside the city of Irkutsk, was the country's worst air disaster for nine years.

The nine crew and 111 passengers, including 16 foreign tourists and one child, had only just started their early-morning flight to Moscow when the pilot of the Tupolev-154 airliner realised one of his engines had caught fire. Desperately he tried to turn the plane back to Irkutsk but two other engines failed and the plane disappeared from radar screens.

A spokeswoman at the Moscow- based State Committee for Emergencies said it appeared the plane had exploded while still in the air. But a local official, Alexander Kamentsky, of the Irkutsk Civil Defence Service, said it had crashed in a snowy field near the village of Mamony and ploughed into farm buildings before turning into an inferno from which no one stood a chance of escaping.

The foreigners were tourists from Germany, Austria, Japan, India and China who had evidently been visiting Lake Baikal, the world's largest freshwater lake and the main attraction of the Irkutsk area. Unconfirmed reports said one Russian farm worker on the ground had died and others were injured. The charred remains of the farmers' dairy cattle were scattered in a gruesome swath around the crash site.

President Boris Yeltsin, who desperately needs some good news to cheer his people, sent condolences to the families of the victims. A commission of inquiry will try to establish exactly what led to the loss of Flight 130, operated by a new independent company, Baikal Air.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Aeroflot, then the world's largest airline, has split into dozens of small companies. Aeroflot, especially on domestic routes, was never a byword for comfort and safety but passengers tended to have more confidence in it than they do in some of the new airlines. Owing to a shortage of spare parts and fuel that grounds many Russian aircraft, those which do take off are often overloaded, even to the point of passengers standing in the aisles.

However, this was not the case on the doomed Tupolev, which could have taken another 44 passengers before reaching its full capacity.

The last large air disaster in the former Soviet Union happened at Ivanovo, near Moscow, in 1992, when 82 people were killed. A crash in 1984 at Omsk, in Siberia, left 150 people dead.

(Map omitted)

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