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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sibir Tu-154 Explodes Over Black Sea

APPresident Putin, ninth from right, meeting Thursday with European justice ministers. He interrupted the talks to announce that the Sibir jet had crashed in the Black Sea.
A Russian chartered airliner heading from Tel Aviv to Siberia exploded in flight Thursday and crashed off the Black Sea coast with at least 76 people on board, and a senior U.S. military official said that it may have been downed accidentally by a missile fired during a military exercise in Ukraine.

However, Ukraine categorically denied that theory, and President Vladimir Putin said he had no reason to doubt the denial.

"The weapons that were being used during this exercise could not reach the area where our Tu-154 was flying," Putin said. "What I told you as of this moment is based on what our Ukrainian partners have told us and we don't have any reason not to trust them."

Russian officials were investigating the possibility that the plane had been targeted by terrorists. "A civilian aircraft crashed today and it is possible that it is the result of a terrorist act," Putin told a meeting of visiting European justice ministers.

A U.S. Defense Department official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a land-based surface-to-air missile had been fired from the Crimean region of Ukraine.

The missile was believed to be an S-200, a surface-to-air missile of Russian design that is guided by radar to its target. NATO calls the missile the SA-5 "Gammon." It flies faster than three times the speed of sound, has a range of up to nearly 250 kilometers and can hit targets above 30,000 meters altitude, according to several military publications.

Another American defense official said the missile may have been fired from a naval vessel. The exercises were conducted on Cape Onuk, in Crimea, about 250 kilometers from the site of the crash, on territory controlled by the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Ukrainian anti-aircraft, navy, rocket forces, aviation and artillery took part, as well as Russian forces including shore-based forces and a guard ship. Part of the exercise involved firing on an unmanned aircraft.

According to military officials, the exercise included anti-aircraft S-125, S-200 and S-300 rockets, which are similar to U.S. Patriot missiles, and R-300 tactical rockets.

"The direction of the firing and the distance do not correspond to the plane's explosion site either in theory or in practice. All the hits by the rockets used during the exercise were recorded by corresponding devices and reached their targets," said Konstantyn Khivrenko, the Ukrainian defense spokesman. "Moreover, the monitoring means of Ukraine's air defense forces as well as those of the Ukrainian air traffic control did not record the presence of any civilian aircraft in the exercise area during the maneuvers."

He said that the targets were at a distance of 35 to 39 kilometers. "All the rockets used during the training exercise had guaranteed service lives and self-destruction mechanisms in case they deviated from their course," said Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk, according to a statement released by Khivrenko.

Garik Ovanesyan, the pilot of an Armenian An-24 flying from the Crimean city of Simferopol to the Armenian capital, Yerevan, said his plane was at 6,300 meters above the Black Sea when the plane above his exploded.

"I saw the explosion on the plane, which was above me at an altitude of 11,000 meters," Ovanesyan said. "The plane fell into the sea, and there was another explosion in the sea. After that I saw a big white spot on the sea and I had the impression that oil was burning."

The plane, a Tu-154, went down in pieces 180 kilometers off the Russian coastal city of Adler, located on the Georgian border, said Vasily Yurchuk, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry.

The plane was on its way from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk, Yurchuk said. It belonged to Sibir, which is based in Novosibirsk, and had been chartered, Sibir officials said.

A spokesman for the airline, Yevgeny Filenin, said that there were 64 passengers and 12 crew members aboard.

Most if not all passengers were Israeli citizens.

The deputy director for security for Sibir, Viktor Alexeyev, was aboard the plane, ORT television reported, citing the airline's deputy director, Natalya Filyova.

Filyova also said that the passengers' manifest and the list of passengers who had bought tickets were not identical.

An Emergency Situations Ministry officer in the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, Konstantin Ludchenko, told ORT that 10 bodies have been recovered so far. He said that the Black Sea was 2,100 meters deep at the site of the crash.

Officials from President George W. Bush's administration quickly contacted their counterparts in Moscow in an attempt to determine whether there was a connection between the explosion and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or U.S. plans to retaliate.

Putin, who has taken a high-profile position in the international anti-terrorist coalition that has formed following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was immediately informed of the crash, the chief presidential press spokesman said.

In a telephone conversation, he and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expressed condolences to the families and friends of the crash victims. The two leaders pledged to cooperate in the investigation.

Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said there was no clear evidence yet that the plane crashed as the result of a terror attack. But Russian officials said it was the first possibility being considered.

"Naturally, a terrorist attack is one of the versions under consideration," said Alexander Zdanovich, spokesman for the Federal Security Service. "Against the background of the fight against international terrorism, naturally this version must be considered."

He said other potential causes of the crash would be investigated, including a possible explosion in an engine that was not sparked by an explosive device.

The crash was the 21st involving a Tu-154 since it entered service in the early 1970s. With some 1,000 planes built, it is the most widely used jetliner in Russia and is used in many other countries.