Russia held a national day of mourning Monday to honor the 92 people who died Sunday when the military plane they were on crashed into the Black Sea on its way from Sochi to a Russian military base in Syria.
There were no survivors when the 33-year-old Tu-154 aircraft fell from the sky. The cause of the crash is not yet known, but Russian officials said it was not likely the result of terrorism.
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 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.
Vladimir Kuznetsov, a former member of the Alexandrov Ensemble, came to pay his respects to the victims.
"I know all of them. I cannot 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.
Journalists, activist among 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.
Remains of victims began returning to Russia on Monday as a massive search operation involving dozens of ships and aircraft was underway for recovering wreckage.
Mechanical problems or human error suspected
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. It is difficult to say so far how adequately the pilots were acting. The results of the investigation, as well as the black boxes deciphering, will show that.”
Russian officials were quick to rule out a terrorist attack, despite 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 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 lifejackets, 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.”