Russia struggles to explain jet disasters

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The Independent Online

Families of the 89 people killed in two nearly simultaneous plane crashes in Russia were still waiting yesterday to find out whether their loved ones had been victims of a terror attack or a catastrophic coincidence.

Families of the 89 people killed in two nearly simultaneous plane crashes in Russia were still waiting yesterday to find out whether their loved ones had been victims of a terror attack or a catastrophic coincidence.

Grief-stricken relatives and friends converged on Moscow's Domodedovo airport, where authorities were providing counselling and information. Both planes had left Domodedovo within an hour of each other on Tuesday bound for southern Russia. They went down within about three minutes, 480 miles apart. All the victims were Russians except for an Israeli man.

President Vladimir Putin cut short his holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the destination of one of the planes, and returned to Moscow. He ordered the Federal Security Service (FSB), the former KGB, to investigate. An FSB spokes-man, Sergei Ignatchenko, said the intelligence agency had found no evidence of terrorism in its initial investigations. The "black box" flight data recorders from both aircraft were recovered and were being analysed. He added that the main line of inquiry involved "violation of the rules of operating civil aircraft", including the use of poor-quality fuel, breaches of fuelling regulations and pilot errors.

Domodedovo airport officials said that both planes "went through the standard procedure of preparation for flight ... [and] the procedures were carried out properly".

The Sochi-bound plane, a Sibir Airlines Tu-154 with 46 passengers and crew, sent a hijack alert ­ or a distress call ­ just before it crashed near Rostov-on-Don, 600 miles south of Moscow. Witnesses on the ground reported an explosion on board the second plane, a Volga-Aviaexpress Tu-134 with 43 on board, before it crashed near Tula, 90 miles south of Moscow.

Security has been tightened at all of Russia's airports and at various public sites. Security forces are on high alert this week in readiness for Sunday's presidential elections in Chechnya. Separatist rebels have claimed responsibility for several bombings that killed hundreds of people, but there were no immediate claims of responsibility for the two crashes, and a spokesman for the moderate Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov denied that he had any role in the incident.

Some relatives are unconvinced. "I can't believe these two planes fell out of the sky at the same time by themselves. This has to be terrorism," said Anatoly Zvagintsov, 53, whose daughter, Larissa, 21, and her husband, Alexei, 27, died on the Sochi plane. The two had been on honeymoon after their marriage on Friday.

Suspicion of the Chechens remains. They had threatened to disrupt Sunday's vote, which they say is a sham to install the pro-Kremlin candidate, Alu Alkhanov, as president, replacing Akhmad Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow Chechen president assassinated in a bomb attack at a stadium in the Chechen capital, Grozny, in May.

This week, the city has suffered some of its deadliest fighting in more than a year. In a well-orchestrated assault, co-ordinated rebel units simultaneously attacked state targets including checkpoints and police and polling stations throughout Grozny around 8pm on Saturday, then pulled out after midnight.

After the attacks, a Chechen website quoted a rebel commander warning that further actions, including attacks outside Chechnya, were planned."Our actions will not be confined within the territory of Ichkeria alone," said the unidentified separatist leader, using the rebels' name for Chechnya. "Today the entire north Caucasus and all of Russia is a war zone. We will be carrying out attacks wherever we deem necessary."

Tony Blair has sent condolences to the grieving families.

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