Kremlin Looks to Kiev for Crash Clues

APSibir head Vyacheslav Filyov pointing to a hole in a fragment of the downed Tu-154. The cause of such holes is under investigation.
SOCHI, Southern Russia -- With the Kremlin now ready to consider the possibility that a Russian passenger plane was shot down by a stray Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile, investigators on Sunday looked through the piles of debris that have been brought ashore and a vessel searched the bottom of the Black Sea for evidence.

A Sibir Tu-154 airliner flying Thursday afternoon from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk exploded over the Black Sea, some 180 kilometers off the coast of Sochi, killing all 78 people aboard. Most of the passengers were Israeli citizens with Russian roots who were on their way to visit relatives.

A 21-member Israeli delegation arrived Sunday in Sochi to help identify the 14 bodies that were recovered by a Russian freighter. Eight have been identified, officials said.

Ukraine's military has denied that a missile fired during an air-defense exercise on the Black Sea coast downed the plane, saying it did not have sufficient range.

But President Vladimir Putin was not satisfied with the documentation on the exercises that Ukraine has provided so far, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Saturday. Putin had demanded more information about the firing of an S-200 missile at 1:41 p.m. Moscow time, three minutes before the Sibir plane disappeared from radar screens, Ivanov said on RTR television.

"All versions of what happened are being examined, including the possible link between the plane crash and the air defense exercises held by the Ukrainian armed forces," Ivanov said.

Just hours after the crash, unnamed U.S. defense officials in Washington said that data from an early-warning missile tracking system showed the plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile.

Putin initially said he had no reason to doubt Ukraine's denial. Ivanov said the "so-called version" of a stray rocket was "launched by the media." A terrorist attack or malfunction of the aircraft were given as more likely possibilities Thursday.

But at a press conference Saturday in Sochi, Security Council head Vladimir Rushailo confirmed the plane was "hit by an explosion," although he would not elaborate on what kind of explosion. He said investigators have found "foreign objects" among the airplane debris, but said these might be anything, including the passengers' personal belongings.

The Associated Press said officials involved in the salvage effort described finding a large floating cylindrical object that they could not identify.

Fragments of the plane that were found floating in the sea -- broken seats, soaked cushions, a wheel, unrecognizable pieces of metal, even some personal belongings -- were piled in a small hangar at Sochi's airport. Many had small, round holes in them.

The largest fragment -- a piece of bent metal just more than a meter high -- had a big jagged hole in the middle, much like a shrapnel hole.

The New York Times quoted an unidentified official at the Severny Zavod missile factory saying that S-200s shoot down aircraft by blasting them with shrapnel. It is not unusual for the body of the missile to survive the attack, the official said.

The bodies that were retrieved had numerous wounds caused by objects that had gone right through them, said Rushailo, who is heading the commission investigating the tragedy.

The last sound Russian air traffic controllers heard from the cockpit of the Tu-154 was of a pilot's scream, said Alexander Neradko, first deputy transportation minister. "It was not a word, but a scream. It was very short. It only lasted half a second," he said at a news conference Sunday.

The plane's black boxes remain on the bottom of the Black Sea at a depth of more than 2,000 meters. Tatyana Anodina, a member of the special commission, said they were not emitting any radio signals that would make them easier to find.

The search for the black boxes was further hampered by the fact that the silt at the bottom of the Black Sea is six meters deep, Interfax reported, citing Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Alexander Moskalets.

The bottom of the sea was being searched by an unmanned deep-sea vessel, Triton, which belongs to the scientific research ship Alexander Galitsyn, currently deployed at the place of the crash. But the results were hardly encouraging: Triton managed to search only 30 square kilometers Sunday, less than 10 percent of the area where the debris may lie and which is estimated at some 300 square kilometers.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry was sending a delegation to Sochi on Monday to help with the investigation.

On April 20, 2000, a Ukrainian surface-to-surface Tochka-U missile fired during a training exercise veered off course and hit an apartment building in the town of Bovary. Three people were killed and five were injured. The military took several days to admit that the explosion at the apartment building was caused by its missile.

Meanwhile, relatives of passengers on the Sibir flight were arriving in Sochi. The first plane carrying family members from Israel arrived Sunday evening.

"They really don't know what to do, how to behave," said Rabbi Berl Lazar, one of Russia's chief rabbis, who also came to Sochi. "They don't want anything, they just ask what should they do."

The Sochi city administration is offering to take relatives by boat on Monday morning to the place where the plane crashed.