Holiday jet crashes into Black Sea killing 113

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One hundred and thirteen people died yesterday when a plane carrying holidaymakers from Armenia to Russia's Black Sea riviera crashed into the sea as it tried to land in difficult weather conditions.

Investigators insisted it was too early to say what caused the crash but categorically ruled out terrorism and said the most likely cause of the crash was poor visibility or pilot error.

The Airbus A-320 was operated by Armenia's national airline, Armavia, and was flying from the Armenian capital, Yerevan, to Adler, an airport in southern Russia close to the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

None of the passengers managed to put on lifejackets, suggesting they had little or no warning that something was wrong. There were no survivors.

Most of the deceased were Armenians on their way to holiday in Sochi, Russia's premier southern resort, where many of the passengers also had relatives. Among the dead were all eight crew, six children, and twenty-six Russians.

Airport officials said the plane had tried to land once unsuccessfully and was circling for the second time when it disappeared from radar screens in the early hours of yesterday, a little under four miles from the runway. Its approach was complicated by low-hanging cloud and the weather was so bad that the pilot had been on the verge of turning the plane around and returning to Yerevan but decided to try to land after being told that the weather had suddenly improved.

In the event the plane never made it to the runway and hit the sea at an angle of 60 degrees.

There were scenes of grief at Yerevan airport. Gurgen Seroboyan, whose 23-year-old fiancée, Lucenie Gevorkian, was an attendant on the flight, wept as he waited, while Samvel Oganesian said his son Vram, also 23, and his friend Hamlet Abgarian were on the flight.

He said they had planned a holiday in Sochi, whose beaches and mountains are a magnet for the former Soviet Union's new moneyed elite and politicians including the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

As the relatives waited for a special flight to take them to Adler to identify their loved ones' bodies many could not contain their grief and one man became so hysterical that he had to be taken away in an ambulance. Sobbing women held handkerchiefs to their mouths, while men sat silently, their heads in their hands.

"I was waiting for a call from my mother that she had arrived OK. But she did not phone, so I phoned myself and heard that this accident had happened," said Khapet Tadevosyan.

Mr Putin and his Armenian counterpart, Robert Kocharian, both declared yesterday a day of national mourning.

The process of recovering the bodies was delayed by stormy weather and by the afternoon an armada of more than 40 vessels had succeeded in retrieving only 46 corpses.

The fact that the plane sank to a depth of some 2,000 feet made recovery efforts more difficult and the aircraft's two black boxes, which may explain what went wrong, have not yet been recovered. Russian television reported that passengers' personal belongings and body fragments had been recovered a mile from the crash site.

An official inquiry has begun and a team of Airbus officials was flown from France to offer their expertise.

Airbus said it was the sixth A320 out of 2,750 in operation that has crashed since the model was introduced in 1988. This particular A320 was apparently 11 years old and in excellent technical condition.

An Airbus last crashed in Russia in 1994, killing 70 people, when an Aeroflot pilot allowed his teenage son to take the controls. In this case, the crew were said to be "highly experienced".