Pilot's message blames missile for plane crash

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The Independent Online

Despite continuing denials from Kiev, it now appears certain that a missile fired during Ukrainian fleet exercises downed the Russian airliner over the Black Sea last week, killing all 76 people on board.

Despite continuing denials from Kiev, it now appears certain that a missile fired during Ukrainian fleet exercises downed the Russian airliner over the Black Sea last week, killing all 76 people on board.

Air traffic controllers in the north Caucasus district heard the pilot, Yevgeny Garov, screaming "where are we hit?" over the plane's intercom just seconds before it disappeared from radar screens, the Kommersant newspaper reported yesterday. Vladimir Zhukov, deputy head of the control centre that was in contact with the plane, said: "Clearly Garov was asking his crew to find out exactly what damage had been caused by the explosion of the missile so he could tell ground control, but he didn't have time."

A team of investigators sifting through the wreckage reported yesterday to the visiting Russian Interior Minister, Vladimir Rushailo, that a missile was the likeliest cause of the tragedy. Terrorism and catastrophic mechanical failure had been suggested as other possible causes of the mid-air explosion that destroyed the Sibir airlines Tu-154, en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk. Most passenger jets serving in Russian airlines are notoriously old, overworked and under-maintained.

But the US Defence Department took the unusual step of going public with satellite imagery showing that an S-200 missile fired during Ukrainian military exercises ignored its intended target and honed in on the airliner 200 miles away.

The Ukrainian President, Leonid Kuchma, and senior Ukrainian military staff have spent the past week staunchly denying responsibility, but their conviction appeared to wane in recent days.

Mr Kuchma admitted yesterday that the Ukrainian Defence Minister, Oleksandr Kuzmuk, offered his resignation "immediately" after the tragedy but the President refused to accept it. "As President and Supreme Commander, I am not going to get rid of my people so easily," he said.

Investigators have told Russian journalists that what they originally thought might be "bullet holes" in cockpit wreckage retrieved from the sea were more likely to be shrapnel damage inflicted by an exploding missile. Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles are designed to detonate near their target, releasing a cloud of high-velocity metal balls that destroy everything in the vicinity.

A leading member of the Russian team investigating the accident, former air force commander Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, said experts have found metal fragments similar to those from an S-200 warhead.

Thirteen of the 14 bodies so far retrieved from the wreckage have been identified. Most of the passengers were former Soviet emigrants to Israel, flying to Siberia to visit relatives.

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