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Russian Helicopter Crash Investigation Underway - 2002-08-20

Russian officials say 114 people are dead after a helicopter crash in the breakaway Russian region of Chechnya.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov traveled to Chechnya on Tuesday to investigate why the giant MI-26 helicopter crashed.

Mr. Ivanov said he is investigating two possible reasons for the crash: mechanical failure and a possible terrorist act.

Chechen rebels say they shot the helicopter down using a surface-to-air missile. But, Russian media report the helicopter may have crashed because it was carrying too many people. There were 147 people in the MI-26 and Russian officials say it was designed to carry 82.

The helicopter was ferrying troops from a military base in the city of Mozdok in North Ossetia to Khankala, the main military base in Chechnya when it plummeted to the ground, just a few hundred meters from the runway as it approached to land.

A soldier who was on the helicopter and is now in a military hospital in Khankala described what happened to Russia's RTR television.

The soldier said there was a flash near the engine and the inside of the helicopter was covered with a cloud of kerosene. The soldier then lost consciousness. After the helicopter landed and the soldier regained consciousness, he ran to the tail of the aircraft.

The Russian defense minister said rescue workers continue to search at the crash site but there is practically no chance of finding survivors.

President Vladimir Putin appointed a commission to investigate what brought the helicopter down. The Russian leader also declared Thursday to be a day of mourning.

The Russian government has long maintained that the second war in Chechnya is over. But Russian soldiers die almost daily in rebel attacks or mine explosions.

This is the second campaign Russia has waged in Chechnya since the end of the Soviet Union. Russian forces invaded the breakaway region in 1994 only to withdraw in defeat in 1996. Moscow decided to renter the region in 1999 after a series of apartment bombings that Russia blamed on Chechen rebels.