At least 122 are killed as Russian airliner crashes

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A Russian airliner full of holidaymakers crashed in Siberia yesterday, careering off the runway as it landed. At least 122 people were killed, many of them children.

The Airbus A-310, operated by Russia's S7 airline, had just completed a six-hour night flight from Moscow to Irkutsk, Siberia, when the pilot lost control.

Instead of slowing down as the plane touched down, witnesses said it increased speed, veered off the runway, smashed through the airport's 6ft perimeter concrete wall and ended up embedded in a nearby complex of garages.

The fuselage burst into flames, the fuel tanks exploded, and the aircraft, which had been carrying 204 people, including a crew of eight, became an inferno.

Witnesses described how people jumped from the wreck with their bodies engulfed in flames. Emergency escape chutes did not open, they said.

"We touched down smoothly," Margarita Svetlova, a survivor, told Siberian TV. "We had started to slow down but then we began picking up speed and I thought we were taking off. Then the runway ran out and the plane began to shake. We smashed through the perimeter fence. It was frightening, a fire started, there was screaming, and I saw people catch fire."

The weather may have played a role in the accident, as it had been raining and the runway was slippery.

About 50 people are thought to have survived, many of whom are being treated for burns and smoke inhalation. Several are reported to be in a critical condition. The cause of the accident remains unknown.

The aircraft's "black boxes" - the flight recorders that should reveal precisely what happened - have been recovered and their data will be investigated.

It is the fourth plane crash in Irkutsk in 12 years and the town's airport is infamous for the fact that it has a very short runway and requires pilots to make a difficult turn in order to land.

Irkutsk is the gateway to Lake Baikal, the world's deepest freshwater lake, a magnet for Russian and foreign tourists at this time of year. The plane was, therefore, carrying many families and holidaymakers, including 14 children under the age of 12. A man, who identified himself only as Vyacheslav, said his brother, wife and four-year old son were on the plane. "They're not on the list of of passengers who are in hospital," he said dismally.

A government commission has been set up to investigate the crash and a criminal investigation has been opened as President Vladimir Putin sent his condolences to the bereaved.

In the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian airlines gained a reputation for cutting corners to save cash, but in recent years their commitment to passenger safety is widely perceived to have improved.

Catalogue of crashes

* JULY 9, 2006 At least 122 die when an A-310 of the Russian company S7 skids off the runway in Irkutsk and bursts into flames.

* MAY 3, 2006 An Armenian A-320 crashes into the Black Sea killing all 113.

* JULY 2002 A Bashkirian airlines Tu-154 collides with a cargo plane over Germany, killing 71, including 52 children.

* JULY 2001 A Tu-154 crashes in Siberia killing all 143 on board.

* AUGUST 1996 A Tu-154 crashes into a mountain killing all 143 on board.

* DECEMBER 1995 A Tu-154 with 97 people on board disappears flying to the Russian city of Khabarovsk.

* JANUARY 1994 124 people on a Tu-154 killed when it crashes in Siberia.