Missile launcher found at Chechen crash site

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The Independent Online

Investigators in Chechnya have found a discarded missile launcher near the site where an overloaded helicopter crashed into a minefield on Monday in Russia's worst military aviation disaster.

Investigators in Chechnya have found a discarded missile launcher near the site where an overloaded helicopter crashed into a minefield on Monday in Russia's worst military aviation disaster.

The Russian army's aviation commander, Colonel General Vitaly Pavlov, has been suspended until the investigation into the crash is completed. The disaster, the worst setback Russian forces have suffered in 35 months of war against rebels in the breakaway republic, killed at least 114 soldiers and injured 39.

The discovery of the Strela anti-aircraft missile launcher appeared to confirm Chechen rebel claims that they had shot down the Mi-26 helicopter with 147 servicemen on board.

The Mi-26, nicknamed "the cow" by Russian troops, is the primary workhorse of the war. Although it is supposed to carry only 85 passengers, experts say it routinely carries almost twice that number.

"It's a very good helicopter, and it's always very crowded," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military expert. "I've seen them flying with 10 tons of ammunition, plus a full load of passengers." The Mi-26 first flew in 1977 and is reputedly able to carry 20 tons of cargo or as many as 100 fully-equipped troops.

The regular flight from the Russian regional military headquarters in Mozdok to Khankala air base, near Grozny, was carrying mostly officers from the army, the FSB (formerly the KGB) and OMON (special police), who were returning from leave.

Mr Felgenhauer said: "This disaster will affect almost every unit in Chechnya. The rebels have scored a major victory by shooting it down with a heat-seeking missile."

The Strela is a Soviet-made portable anti-aircraft missile. Experts say the Mi-26 was almost certainly equipped with deflection flares that are an effective protection against such missiles, but for unknown reasons these were not deployed when the craft approached.

Witnesses described seeing the burning craft careering into the ground and survivors spilling out, setting off secondary explosions apparently anti-personnel land mines planted around the perimeter of the Khankala air base. One witness said many people were killed by the mines.

The state-owned RTR television service said some of the casualties were would-be rescuers who tried to reach the burning wreckage before a path was cleared through the minefield. But the deputy commander of Russian troops in Chechnya, Colonel Boris Podoprigora, said: "The helicopter fell and caught fire and, according to information I have, nobody was blown up by mines."

A spokesman for the Chechen rebels, Mayarbek Vachegeyev, said such attacks would continue until Russian forces left Chechnya.

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