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Russia Mounts Massive Search for Victims of Crashed Plane

  • Daniel Schearf

People hold portraits and printed names of victims of the Tu-154 plane, which crashed into the Black Sea on its way to Syria on Sunday, during a memorial event in Rostov-On-Don, Russia, Dec. 26, 2016.

A Russian search and recovery operation is continuing around the clock in the Black Sea where a military passenger plane crashed Sunday, killing all 92 people on board.

Forty-five ships and 135 divers from across Russia found parts of the jet about 1.5 kilometers from shore and 25 meters under the sea Monday, the Emergency Situations Ministry reported. At least 11 bodies were also recovered and sent to Moscow.

But the plane's black boxes have yet to be located.

Russian officials say that terrorism has not been ruled out as a cause of the crash, but that it is extremely unlikely.

Instead, Russian media reports speculated on possible causes such as a technical problem or human error, or that the plane may have been overloaded.

“The Tu-154 has not been manufactured for quite a while and the Ministry of Defense was practically the only user of the aircraft,” said Maxim Pyadushkin, managing director of Air Transport Observer magazine. “But the Defense Ministry stated that it had passed through the capital maintenance. That means its condition was under control. We can't so far state whether there were some technical issues. The results of the investigation will show.”

A boat of Russian Emergencies Ministry sails near the crash site of a Russian military Tu-154 plane, which crashed into the Black Sea on its way to Syria on Sunday. Forty-five ships and 135 divers from across Russia are involved in the search.
A boat of Russian Emergencies Ministry sails near the crash site of a Russian military Tu-154 plane, which crashed into the Black Sea on its way to Syria on Sunday. Forty-five ships and 135 divers from across Russia are involved in the search.

Day of mourning

Russia held a national day of mourning Monday to honor the people who died when the 33-year-old Tu-154 aircraft crashed into the Black Sea on its way from Sochi to a Russian military base in Syria.

There were no survivors.

Among the victims were 68 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, a military choir, orchestra and dance group that was to give a New Year's performance for Russian airmen at the military base near Latakia.

Mourners in Moscow lit candles and left flowers outside a concert hall where the group had performed.

A Russian video news agency showed mourners gathered on the Black Sea coast laying flowers, lighting candles and dropping cloves into the water during a vigil on the Grafskaya piers in Sevastopol to honor the victims of the disaster.

Nine journalists killed

Vladimir Kuznetsov, a former member of the Alexandrov Ensemble, came to pay his respects to crash victims.

“I know all of them. I can not believe it, can't collect myself,” Kuznetsov told AFP.

“They knew us all over the world, we went everywhere,” he said of the group, while holding a candle in a plastic cup.

Russia state television cancelled entertainment programs and broadcast black-and-white pictures of the victims.

Nine Russian journalists and a well-known human rights activist, Elizaveta Glinka, known as "Dr. Liza," were among those killed. Glinka was said to be taking medical supplies to help victims of the nearly six-year Syrian conflict.

Candles, flowers, a piece of bread and a glass of vodka are placed in memory of passengers and crew members of Russian military plane, which crashed into the Black Sea on its way to Syria on Sunday.
Candles, flowers, a piece of bread and a glass of vodka are placed in memory of passengers and crew members of Russian military plane, which crashed into the Black Sea on its way to Syria on Sunday.

Investigation

While Russian officials downplay the possibility of a terrorist attack, there are concerns that Russia's intervention in Syria has made it more a target for extremists.

Russia's ambassador to Turkey was assassinated last Tuesday in Ankara by a police officer apparently motivated by the Russia-backed assault on Aleppo by Syrian forces.

Russia has defended its backing of Syrian forces as a fight against terrorism, while critics say rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were the main target.

Some Russian media reports said victims of Sunday's crash were found in life jackets, indicating that a sudden explosion from a bomb was unlikely.

“A version about a terrorist act is, so far, a mere assumption," said Pyadushkin. "Only investigation could provide some proof. One would like to hope that the Russian aviation commission, together with the military, could conduct an efficient investigation of the catastrophe.”

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