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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Team Finds Bodies, Locates Cockpit Box

A Norwegian-Russian rescue team had found approximately two-thirds of 141 bodies by early Monday from a Russian airliner that slammed into an arctic mountain in Norway's worst air disaster.


The cockpit voice recorder from the plane was found by an impatient, two-man Russian team that briefly searched the crash site in defiance of Norwegian orders, officials said.


About 50 Norwegian and Russian experts were at the scene over the weekend, and approximately 70 of the 91 bodies found had been brought down from the peak of the 900 meter-high Opera mountain by early Monday.


All 141 people -- Russian and Ukrainian miners and their families -- died Thursday when their Tupolev 154 slammed into a mountain 10 kilometers short of the main airport of Norway's Spitsbergen Islands.


The two Russian climbers, briefly handcuffed when arrested near the scene late Saturday, were released early Sunday. Norwegian officials accepted the Russians' insistence that they hadn't meant to tamper with the site, and decided Sunday to let them rejoin the search.


Russian civilians and officials have complained that Norway is moving too slowly in the search. It took more than two days to recover the first 20 bodies by Saturday.


The remains of the Russian and Ukrainian coal miners and their families were being flown to the northern Norwegian city of Tromso for identification.


"One has to understand that these people are impatient,'' said Alexander Moskalets, of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry. He said he talked to a Russian miner who couldn't stand the thought that "he was in a warm apartment while his wife and two children are up there in the cold snow.''


But the Norwegian governor of Spitsbergen, Ann-Kristin Olsen, told a news conference Sunday, "We are trying to work systematically, and the Russians were many steps ahead of our plan.''


The low-level international tensions complicated an already difficult task that's relying heavily on mountaineering skills.


"This episode is now over and forgotten,'' said Moskalets after a two-hour meeting with Norwegian officials Sunday. "What we are interested in now is getting back to work.''


The Russian climbers had been in a helicopter Saturday afternoon when clouds shrouding the peak lifted. They used the chance to land, and found the voice recorder in less than 20 minutes.


"They told us they had found some passports, shoes and what they thought was the voice recorder, but they did not remove anything from the site and only marked the finds with stones in the snow,'' said Deputy Spitsbergen Governor Rune Hansen.


The cockpit voice recorder and a flight data recorder, which was found Friday, could help explain why the Vnukovo Airlines charter from Moscow veered off course, hitting the top of Opera mountain.


The victims were bound for two Russian mining settlements, allowed on the archipelago under a 1920 treaty that says Spitsbergen is Norwegian territory but allows other countries non-military access.


Norway, a member of the NATO alliance, fiercely protects its authority on Spitsbergen, about 640 kilometers north of the mainland. It only reluctantly allowed an 11-member Russian climbing team, sent unannounced by Moscow, to assist the Norwegian search under strict limitations.


"We still consider the incident at the crash site a serious breach of confidence after we had agreed on the terms of cooperation,'' Olsen said.


Even reaching the mountain is difficult. The area is roadless and icy. Weather, often severe, shifts quickly, and searchers also have be on guard for polar bears, which have killed two people in Svalbard in the past year.


Grieving, frustrated Russians, tired of waiting for the meticulous Norwegians, confronted Norway's Justice Minister Grete Faremo when she arrived in Barentsburg to pay her respects Saturday.


In a letter to Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland released Sunday, they demanded immediate top-level action. (Reuters, AP)








"Let our people go up on the mountain and get the bodies,'' demanded Pavel Zerikov, of the local mountain rescue group. "Our dead have been lying the mountains for nearly three days.''





Recovered bodies were being flown to Tromso, where a 75-member team will attempt to identify them. Russians objected, wanting their loved ones back at once.


"It takes time,'' said Arne Bjoerkaas, of the Norwegian police identification unit.