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Thousands of Russians Gather to Pay Last Respects to Air Collision Victims - 2002-07-13

Thousands of mourners gathered Saturday in the Russian town of Ufa to pay their last respects to some of the victims of a mid-air collision over southern Germany that occurred more than a week ago. Most of the 71 crash victims were schoolchildren and youngsters from around Ufa, in the republic of Bashkortostan.

The mourners came to say their final farewell. They were parents, friends and classmates. Some carried flowers and photographs of their loved ones. More than 1,000 people gathered at Ufa's central square for both Muslim and Orthodox Christian memorial services.

Seventy-one people were killed more than a week ago, when a Russian Tupolev airliner collided in mid-air with a Boeing cargo jet over southern Germany near the border with Switzerland. Most of the victims were schoolchildren from Bashkortostan on their way to a summer holiday in Spain.

The cause of the crash is still under investigation. The planes were under the control of Swiss air traffic authorities when the crash occurred. Initially, Swiss officials blamed the Russian pilot for responding too slowly to warnings to change course. But, questions have since been asked about Swiss air traffic control operations and why controllers did not issue a collision warning sooner.

Swiss President Kaspar Villiger was scheduled to attend Saturday's memorial services in Ufa, but then agreed to stay away for fear of angering distraught parents. The speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament, Sergei Mironov attended the memorial ceremonies to offer condolences on behalf of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Saturday's memorial services were for the last 28 victims from around Ufa, which lies some 1,200 kilometers east of Moscow, in the Ural mountains. Similar services were held early in the week for some of the other crash victims.