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Russian teams search Black Sea for military plane crash clues

© Stringer, AFP | Rescuers carry a stretcher after a Russian military plane crashed in the Black Sea, on a pier outside Sochi, on December 25, 2016.

Video by Thomas LOWE

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-12-26

Backed by ships, helicopters and drones, Russian teams on Monday continued to search the Black Sea area just off Sochi, where a military plane bound for Syria crashed on Christmas Day with 92 people on board.

All 84 passengers and eight crew members on the Russian military's Tu-154 plane are believed to have died when it crashed shortly after takeoff early Sunday in good weather from the southern Russian city of Sochi. The passengers included dozens of singers from Russia's world-famous military choir.

Reporting from Moscow, FRANCE 24’s Thomas Lowe said the search, which continued through the night, was focused on a 12-square kilometre area of the Black Sea. “More than 3,000 people, we’re told, are involved in that search. They’re looking mainly for parts of the wreckage and, of course, they’re trying to recover all the bodies of the 92 victims on board that plane that came down just off the Sochi coast on its way to Latakia in Syria.”

Rescue workers on 32 ships – including over 100 divers flown in from across Russia – were searching the crash site at sea and along the shore, the Defence Ministry said. Helicopters, drones and submersibles were being used to help spot bodies and debris. Powerful spotlights were brought in so the operation could continue all night.

Emergency crews found fragments of the plane about 1.5 kilometres from shore. By Sunday evening, rescue teams had recovered 11 bodies and Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said fragments of other bodies were also found.

Hours after the crash, Sokolov said investigators were looking into every possible reason for the crash. Several experts noted factors that suggested a terror attack, such as the crew's failure to report any malfunction and the fact that plane debris was scattered over a wide area, indicators of a sudden incident in the air.

“There are a number of possibilities for this investigation,” explained Lowe. “One is technical problems with the aircraft. The other is pilot error though that’s considered a little less likely. The pilot is said to be a very experienced pilot. They’ve said they’re not ruling out an act of terror either.”

But on Monday morning, Transport Minister Sokolov said investigators were looking into a possible pilot error or a technical fault and that a terrorist attack was not among the main theories.

The search was made more difficult by Black Sea underwater currents that carried debris and body fragments into the open sea. Sokolov said the plane's flight recorders did not have radio beacons, so locating them on the seabed was going to be challenging.

The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built three-engine airliner designed in the late 1960s. More than 1,000 have been built, and they have been used extensively in Russia and worldwide.

The plane was taking the Defence Ministry's choir, the Alexandrov Ensemble, to perform at a New Year's concert at Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia. Those on board also included nine Russian journalists and a Russian doctor famous for her work in war zones.

A huge cultural loss for Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared Monday a nationwide day of mourning.

In a televised address to the nation Sunday, Putin said, "We will conduct a thorough investigation into the reasons and will do everything to support the victims' families."

Hundreds of people have been leaving flowers and lighting candles at a makeshift memorial in Sochi, while in Moscow mourners have been gathering outside the headquarters of the Alexandrov Ensemble, one of the world’s best bands.

The ensemble has a military body of 400 artists including musicians, singers and dancers, of whom 50 have received the supreme title of Emeritus Artist of Russia.

Founded in 1929 by prominent composer Aleksandr V. Aleksandrov, the choir had its origins during the Soviet era and today consists of an orchestra, dance ensemble and choir. In 2014, the choir became an online sensation after it sang "Get Lucky" at the opening of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

A look at the Red Army choirs

The passenger list released by the Defence Ministry included 64 members of the ensemble, including its leader, Valery Khalilov.

The damage to the choir was reported to be devastating. Viktor Yeliseyev, head of the rival choir for the Russian National Guard, said "most singers of the choir have died".

In an interview with a Russian news site, Aleksandrov’s grandson, Yevgeny, said, “The best members of the ensemble died. All the best soloists, the whole choir. Everything will collapse now, the best ones are gone.”

Also on board the military plane was Yelizaveta Glinka, a Russian doctor who has won wide acclaim for her charity work, which has included missions to war zones in eastern Ukraine and Syria. Her foundation said Glinka was accompanying a medical shipment for a hospital in Syria.

"We never feel sure that we will come back alive," she said when Putin presented her with an award earlier this month. "But we are sure that kindness, compassion and charity are stronger than any weapon." 

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

Date created : 2016-12-26


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