Two planes crash and send hijack alert
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Two Russian Planes Crash, One Sent Hijack Alert
Wed Aug 25, 2004 05:54 AM ET
By Douglas Busvine
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Two Russian passenger planes crashed almost simultaneously killing all 89 people on board and airline officials said one of the pilots had sent a hijack alert, raising suspicion of a terrorist attack.
The planes disappeared from air traffic controllers' radar screens within minutes of each other late on Tuesday and one, carrying 46 passengers and crew, sent a hijack alert signal before crashing near the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don.
Sibir Airlines, operator of Flight 1047 from Moscow to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, said the alert had been triggered when the pilot of the Tu-154 plane pressed a concealed button.
President Vladimir Putin, vacationing in Sochi, ordered the FSB security service to investigate the crashes, which came before Sunday's presidential election in Chechnya. Rebel separatists have threatened to disrupt the poll with violence.
"According to the latest statement from the head of the military sector of Russia's main air control center, a hijack message was indeed received last night from a Sibir Tu-154 aircraft," Sibir said in a statement.
"The message was generated right before all contact was lost with the plane and it disappeared from radar screens."
Witnesses on the ground heard an explosion from the second plane, Flight 1303 from Moscow to Volgograd with 43 on board, before it crashed near Tula, 90 miles south of Moscow.
"Around 11 p.m. (1500 EDT), give or take five minutes, there was this strange noise in the sky, then this torn-up book fell onto our garage," a local man told NTV television, holding up the book with its tattered pages.
FSB officials investigating both flights had not yet found evidence of a terrorist act or explosion but ruled nothing out.
"The main line of inquiry we are following is violation of the rules of operating civil aircraft," said an FSB spokeswoman, adding that this included pilot error and mechanical defects.
Local prosecutors opened criminal probes into both crashes and an aviation source quoted by Interfax news agency said the coincidence of both planes leaving from the same airport and disappearing at the same time would suggest it was "a planned action." "In such a situation one could not exclude a terrorist act," the source was quoted as saying.
Both planes took off from Moscow's Domodedovo airport after passing routine mechanical checks. The airport gave the final toll as 89, all Russian citizens.
Security was tightened at Russian airports, where passenger checks on internal flights are often cursory -- the kind of security loophole exploited by the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001 suicide hijack attacks in the United States.
The incidents came against a backdrop of mounting violence in Chechnya, where Moscow has been battling separatists for a decade. Rebels launched a major raid in the local capital Grozny last week and have promised more attacks ahead of Sunday's vote.
Moderate Chechen separatists denied any role in the crashes.
"Our government has nothing to do with terrorist attacks. Our attacks only target the military. This is part of the Russian propaganda plan to besmirch the struggle of the Chechen people," Farouq Tubulat, a spokesman for Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, told Al Jazeera television.
The Tu-134 which crashed near Tula, operated by Volga-Aviaexpress, came down after nearly reaching its cruising altitude. The company said the plane was in good shape and its passengers had undergone all necessary security checks.
"I rule out pilot error, because even in the most serious conditions which can affect this kind of plane, such as loss of control or fire, the crew always has time to pass on information to the ground," Yuri Dmitriev, director of Volgograd airport, told Russia's First Channel television.
An Emergencies Ministry spokeswoman said there was no chance of anyone surviving as the plane fell from 30,000 feet. Wreckage was scattered over several miles with some pieces about the size of a car, TV footage showed.
At 10:59 p.m. (1459 EDT), three minutes after the Volga-Aviaexpress Tu-134 crashed, air traffic controllers lost contact with the Sibir Tu-154. Its wreckage was not found until Wednesday morning in a search hampered by fog.
Officials said that all flight recorders had been recovered from the planes and sent to Moscow for analysis. The task of recovering the bodies of victims -- whose names have been shown on Russian television -- was continuing.
(Additional reporting by Oliver Bullough and Maria Golovnina in Moscow and Miral Fahmy in Dubai)