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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Miners Denied Chance to View Victims

Norway -- Russian miners insist on being allowed to identify their loved ones killed when a Russian airliner crashed into a mountain on the Norwegian Arctic territory of Spitsbergen.


But Norwegian officials say the victims of the worst plane crash in Norwegian history are so badly mangled they cannot be identified by simply viewing them.


The Russian flag was flying at half mast at the weekend in Barentsberg, a grimy mining settlement with 900 inhabitants living in rows of two-story houses between the barren mountains.


Norway governs Spitsbergen under a 1920 treaty, which allows Russia to exploit the island's coal resources.


Amid the mourning, a sense of bitterness was spreading among the Russian community after the Tu-154 airliner crashed into the mountainside near the Norwegian town of Longyear on Thursday, killing all 141 people on board.


The dead, Russian and Ukrainian miners and family members, were on their way to the coal mines on the island.


Their remains are being flown to the northern Norwegian city of Tromso, 800 kilometers to the south for identification.


"We want the identification process either to take place here or we want to be flown to Tromso to help identify our relatives," Vyateslav Grebernjok, a bearded 26-year-old wearing a black leather jacket, told reporters.


Grebernjok lost his wife Olga, 25, who was coming to visit him, leaving their 5-year-old daughter behind in Donetsk, on the river Don in the Rostov region of southern Russia. He is one of 16 people in Barentsberg to have lost family in the crash.


Spitsbergen governor Ann-Kristin Olsen, who was in Barentsberg on Saturday to accompany Norwegian Justice Minister Grete Faremo on a brief visit, rejected the demand.


"The reality is so tough that you cannot identify the victims visually," Olsen told reporters.


"It will take blood tests, finger prints and dental examinations to find out who is who. This is obviously painful for the relatives. We want them to take a dignified farewell in front of the coffins later."


Dozens of grim-looking miners gathered in the street to catch a glimpse of Faremo, who came to offer her condolences but ran into a storm of criticism over the rescue efforts from local people distraught at losing relatives. Pavel Serikov, head of the Russian mine's rescue service, lost his daughter, son-in-law and one grandchild in the crash.


"I know what grief means. We demand to take part, we want our dead back," he angrily told the Norwegian minister.


Faremo said she felt the recovery operation had gone well given the bad weather and tough terrain.


Sergei Schnidko, 29, a miner who lost his wife in the accident, walked up to Faremo to shake hands but was overcome with grief and ran away.


Smoking a cigarette, he said Natalya, 22, was coming to live with him in Barentsberg, where he has worked one year of a two-year contract.


"She was meant to follow me here. This was her first visit. I was waiting at the helicopter pad when I got word the plane had crashed," said Schnidko.


Miners arriving at Longyear Airport from Moscow are shuttled by helicopter to Barentsberg 50 kilometers away.


"I will go home for the funeral and I don't know if I'm coming back. I can't make up my mind," said Schnidko, who is also from Donetsk.


"The main thing is to get the bodies home."