A Russian chartered jet heading from Israel to Siberia exploded in flight yesterday, crashing off the Black Sea coast with a reported 77 people on board.
While President Vladimir Putin initially said terrorists might be responsible, a senior US military source in Washington said that the crash of the Sibir Airlines jet may have been caused by a surface-to-air missile fired during a military training exercise in Ukraine.
A Ukrainian naval official confirmed that a missile had accidentally hit the plane during training exercises in the Crimea. But the Ukrainian Defense Ministry denied that any of its forces had fired a rocket had could have hit the passenger jet. "All the rockets used during the training exercise had guaranteed service lives and self-destruction mechanisms in case they deviated from their course," said Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk, according to a statement released by ministry spokesman Kostyantyn Khivrenko.
"It is theoretically possible the Ukrainians could have done this by some freak accident," said Alexander Goltz, a leading journalist specializing in military issues. "We know that Ukraine has some S-300 anti-aircraft complexes left from the Soviet times. That is the only former Soviet weapon that could have conceivably brought down that plane at that distance."
Deputy Russian Transport Minister Karl Ruppel told The Associated Press that a crew of an Armenian An-24 airliner in the area had informed Russian air traffic controllers in Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia that they saw an explosion aboard a plane flying nearby.
Garik Ovanisian, the pilot of the Armenian An-24, said his plane was at 6,300 meters (20,790 feet) above the Black Sea when the plane above his exploded. "I saw the explosion on the plane, which was above me at an altitude of 11,000 meters (36,300 feet)," Ovanisian said. "The plane fell into the sea, and there was another explosion in the sea. After that I saw a big white spot on the sea and I had the impression that oil was burning."
According to the Israeli Airport authority, the Sibir Airlines flight left Tel-Aviv for the six-hour flight to Novosibirsk Thursday morning with 11 crew and 66 passengers aboard, all Israeli citizens. Most of the people on the plane are believed to have been immigrants to Israel visiting relatives back in Sibera for the Jewish fall holiday season.
Rescue workers said that one body had been recovered at the crash site, as well as fragments of the plane.
Mikhail Koshman, a spokesman for Sibir, said the plane was delayed for half an hour before it took off from Ben Gurion airport, but denied rumors that it may have stopped for refueling in Burgas, Bulgaria. "The plane was on a direct flight, and it remained completely on course until it was lost from radar screens," he said.
After news of the crash, departures from Ben Gurion airport were suspended, although incoming planes were being permitted to land.
Referring to the Sibir Airlines flight, Gabi Ofir, the general-director of the Israeli Airport Authority, told journalists: "The plane was checked last night and so were the passengers this morning. From the security standpoint, we did all the necessary checks." He added that "of course we do additional checks if there is any kind of indication of something unusual."
Mr. Ofir said that other planes were being checked in the wake of the crash.
Sibir Airlines is Russia's second largest carrier, with 30 aircraft serving some 150 Russian cities. About 20 of its planes are ageing Tu-154s of the type that crashed Thursday. News reports in Russia said the jet that crashed had last been overhauled in 1995. The Tu-154 has been the backbone of Russia's airline industry for 25 years. A total of 923 of the planes were built, 530 of them remain in service in Russia. Since the Tu-154's introduction, 29 have been lost in accidents, including the one that crashed Thursday.
"If it was a terrorist act, we see that the circle of terrorist groups is wider than we previously thought," says Sergei Yushenkov, deputy chair of the State Duma's Security Committee. "It will toughen our resolve, but won't change our decisions. President Putin has already pledged Russia's cooperation in the anti-terrorist coalition."
Russia's committment to looming strikes against alleged terror bases in Afghanistan has so far been limited to intelligence-sharing and logistical support. Some analysts say evidence of a terrorist conspiracy behind Thursday's crash could lead to bolder action from Moscow.
"If it was terrorism, then Russian public opinion might well support tougher measures," said Alexander Pikayev, a security expert with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "Russia might take bigger part in military operations in Afganistan, up to participating in the bombings of the terrorists' camps."
Material from staff writer Ilene R. Prusher in Jerasulem and wire services was used in this report.