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Putin Criticizes Military for Deadly Chechen Helicopter Crash - 2002-08-22

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made his first public comments since the deadly military helicopter crash that killed 116 people Monday in Chechnya. President Putin criticized the military for failing to follow through on reforms.

President Putin leveled the criticism in a Kremlin meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. Mr. Ivanov was summoned to update the President on the latest details of the investigation into the crash.

President Putin was heard on Russian state television asking how such an accident could have happened when, he said, there has been a decree banning the use of Mi-26 helicopters for transporting troops since 1997.

President Putin also noted in the meeting with Mr. Ivanov that the military reforms he recently launched were aimed at making people safe from just such tragedies.

Investigators are pursuing several causes for the crash, including technical malfunction or a Chechen rebel attack. But with President Putin now on record about possible fault by the military, that line of questioning will likely grow.

147 people were on board the helicopter, which has a capacity of about 85, when it went down in a minefield just outside Russia's largest military base in break-away Chechnya.

Only 31 people survived, and officials fear the death toll could climb higher, as the condition of some of the injured soldiers is reported failing.

Relatives and family members of the victims have begun arriving at the military hospital for the grim task of identifying the badly burned bodies. Flags flew at half-staff across Russia in a day of national mourning that coincided with the country's annual Flag Day. It is the first time since the holiday was created in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that flags have been lowered on a day meant to see them flying high.