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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Blames Military for Air Crash

APSergei Zhiltsov, hurt in the helicopter crash, talking with his parents on Wednesday.
President Vladimir Putin on Thursday blamed the military for the crash of a transport helicopter in Chechnya that killed 116 people, and flags were lowered to half-staff across the nation to mark a day of mourning.

The Mi-26 transport helicopter went down Monday in a minefield outside the Khankala military headquarters near Grozny. Investigators said they had found part of a mobile missile launcher near the crash site, lending credence to rebel claims that they shot down the aircraft, but prosecutors are also considering technical malfunctions and the possibility of overloading as possible causes of the crash. The helicopter had a capacity for about 85 people.

Putin called Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to the Kremlin for an accounting of the investigation so far. State television showed an unusually long broadcast of the conversation -- almost 10 minutes -- in which a grim-looking Putin took to task the institution headed by his close political ally and former KGB associate, Ivanov.

"Even the most preliminary analysis shows that as a rule the responsibility lies with officials' improper performance of their duties," Putin said.

He said a decree banning the use of Mi-26 helicopters to transport troops had been on the books since 1997.

"How could this happen, in spite of the Defense Ministry decree prohibiting the transport of people on this kind of aircraft?" he asked.

Putin also said the military reform he has launched -- over the objections of most of the top brass -- was "aimed at making the army more viable and effective, so that such tragedies would not occur."

Only 31 of the 147 people on board the helicopter survived the fiery crash. ORT television repeatedly broadcast a list of the victims identified so far, against a background of clouds moving across a blue sky. Participants in a small march in Moscow to mark Flag Day, the anniversary of the failed 1991 coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, tied black ribbons to the Russian flags they carried.

"We have full sympathy for those who died in Chechnya," said Tatyana Veretennikova, a 64-year-old retired chemist who manned barricades against the coup forces 11 years ago. "For us it's a tragedy, and in general the war in Chechnya is a tragedy for all of us."

Another serviceman died overnight, bringing the death toll to 116, Interfax and Itar-Tass reported, citing officials at the military hospital in Rostov-on-Don. More than 80 bodies have been brought to the military forensic laboratory in Rostov, and 11 have been identified so far, said Vladimir Shcherbakov, the laboratory chief.

Military officials appealed to victims' relatives to help identify the bodies, most of which were badly burned in the fire that consumed the helicopter, and about 180 were expected to arrive in Rostov by Saturday, city authorities said. Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinsky said most of the victims died in a blaze that erupted while the helicopter was still in the air.

It was Russia's single largest military loss since the explosion and sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine two years ago this month, which took the lives of 118 seamen.

Public reaction to the helicopter crash has been markedly more reserved -- perhaps because Russians have become inured to the loss of servicemen in Chechnya, where the war has been grinding on for close to three years.