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French Oil CEO Killed in Moscow Runway Crash

FILE - This Feb. 13, 2013 file photo shows French energy giant Total CEO, Christophe de Margerie, posing prior to a press conference in Paris, France.

Russian authorities say they are investigating the plane crash that killed four people, including the CEO of a major French oil company.

Chairman and CEO of Total SA, 63-year-old Christophe de Margerie, and all three members of the flight crew on the corporate jet taking him back to Paris, died when their plane crashed and burned trying take-off from Moscow's Vnukovo airport just before midnight Monday.

Authorities say the aircraft grazed a snow plow whose driver they suspect was drunk at the time of the accident. The driver survived the crash.

The wreckage of what is believed to be Christophe de Margerie's Dassault Falcon jet is seen at Moscow's Vnukovo airport, Oct. 21, 2014.
The wreckage of what is believed to be Christophe de Margerie's Dassault Falcon jet is seen at Moscow's Vnukovo airport, Oct. 21, 2014.

Investigators say they are also looking at the actions of air traffic controllers and the flight crew as they try to determine the cause of the crash.

Total's CEO was critical of Western sanctions against Iran and Russia. He also said currencies in addition to the U.S. dollar should be used in the sale of oil. At present U.S. dollars are used in most oil transactions.

At a conference in July in France, the Total CEO said “The price of a barrel of oil is quoted in dollars," but "nothing prevents anyone from paying for oil in euros."

De Margerie's comments were made after the U.S. fined French banking giant BNP Paribas SA $8.9 billion for U.S. dollar transactions in countries facing American sanctions.

Industry observers say de Margerie was far more outspoken than most in his industry.

The Wall Street Journal reported the Total CEO was railing against Western sanctions at a meeting with Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and several other foreign CEOs in Moscow just before his death.

Analysts say as CEO of Total he managed to ingratiate his company with Tehran, and they point to de Margerie having sat purposely alongside Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the global economic forum in Davos in January as evidence of that special relationship.

In May 2013, Total agreed to pay $398 million to settle U.S. criminal and civil allegations that it paid bribes to win oil and gas contracts in Iran. A French prosecutor recommended that de Margerie himself face trial, although no hearing resulted.

Two months later, de Margerie was among 18 people acquitted in court, alongside Total itself, of corruption charges related to a United Nations oil-for-food program in Iraq. They had been accused of misusing assets in a decade-old case involving the program, from which an illicit $1.8 billion flowed to Saddam Hussein's government.

French President Francois Hollande issued a statement praising de Margerie's dedication to French industry for building up the Total group and for his devotion to France.

Russia's Itar-Tass state news agency reported that President Vladimir Putin expressed deep condolences over the Total CEO's death. A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying that Putin highly valued de Margerie’s commitment to developing Russian-French relations and mutually beneficial cooperation.

European investors sent the company’s shares lower in early trading Tuesday, but Total's share price closed 3.5 percent higher on the Paris stock exchange.

Known for his bushy moustache and thin, round eyeglasses, de Margerie took over as chief executive officer of Total in 2007. He added Chairman to the title three years later.

Before becoming CEO, de Margerie headed Total's Middle East division during the United Nations' corruption-marred oil-for-food program in Iraq in the 1990s.

De Margerie's passing leaves a void at the top of the French group. The company announced on its website that the board of directors would meet immediately.

The company operates with nearly 100,000 employees in more than 130 countries.