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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Organized Attack or Tragic Coincidence?

With only three minutes separating the crashes of two planes from the same airport and a hijacking alert on one, the big question on many people's minds Wednesday was whether the unfolding story was part of an organized terrorist attack or a tragic coincidence.

The Federal Security Service, ordered by President Vladimir Putin to investigate, issued contradictory statements throughout the day Wednesday before settling on the theory that the crashes looked like accidents.

But aviation insiders and even a U.S. government official suggested something was awry.

"We have little information, but I have a bad feeling that it was organized," Aeroflot's security chief Azat Zaripov said.

"I could not rule out a terrorist attack as quickly as they seem to want to do it over here," said Paul Duffy, an independent aviation analyst.

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, was having none of that.

"So far there are no signs of terrorist acts taking place on board either plane," FSB spokesman Nikolai Zakharov said.

Investigators rolled out evidence disproving a terrorist attack. They said none of the recovered bodies had burns -- which would have been an indication of an on-board explosion. The hijack alert from the Sibir Tu-154, confirmed by air traffic controllers and Sibir, was in fact an SOS call. And they said their investigation will not focus on terrorism but violations of civilian aircraft rules.

The number of similarities in the crashes, though, is unusual. Both planes left Moscow's Domodedovo Airport within 40 minutes of each other. Both fell from the sky at about 11 p.m. Both were headed for cities in southern Russia.

Then, of course, there's the hijack alert on a plane heading to Sochi, where Putin was vacationing.

The nearly simultaneous crashes "in and of itself is suspicious," an unidentified U.S. official said in Washington on Tuesday night, The Associated Press reported.

The crashes fit into the Chechen rebels' pattern of bringing violence to the heart of Russia, said Peter Sederberg, a professor who specializes in international terrorism at the University of South Carolina.

"What if -- even if this is purely speculative -- they indeed were trying to crash it on Sochi? It would fit in as a very dramatic demonstration against one particular individual whom they identify as an enemy," Sederberg said.

There was no indication that this might have been the case Wednesday. Likewise, there was no sign that either of the planes might have been shot down.

Incidentally, just last week a senior air defense official expressed concern about the possibility of hijackers seizing a passenger plane and using it as a bomb. Colonel General Yury Solovyov, commander of the Moscow air defense system, told reporters on Aug. 17 that it would take hijackers just 40 seconds to reach downtown Moscow upon takeoff from Vnukovo Airport, which is located southwest of Moscow.

He said the law allows air defense forces to shoot down a hijacked plane -- but only if there is solid evidence that the plane has been hijacked and no one is on board other than the hijackers.

Izvestia reported Aug. 18 that the military is lobbying for the right to shoot down hijacked planes if there is a strong reason to believe they will be crashed in Moscow.

Concerns about terrorist hijackings were raised by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, and Chechen rebels have indicated that they are willing to use planes to attack Russian cities.

Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov told Reuters in a recent e-mail statement that "if Chechens possessed warplanes or rockets, then airstrikes on Russian cities would also be legitimate."

Maskhadov's envoy, Akhmed Zakayev, denied that Chechen rebels or Maskhadov were connected to Tuesday's crashes.

Federal authorities were clearly worried Tuesday night that a hijacking was in progress. The country's air traffic center fired off a telegram to airports nationwide just minutes after the Sibir plane sent the hijack alert.

"On 24.08.04 the markers for the Tu-154 and Tu-134 disappeared in the Moscow and Rostov zone controlling centers," reads the telegram, carried by Interfax. "One of the planes had the hijack alarm activated. I ask you to increase vigilance at airports during passenger checks and boarding."

But Valery Luchinin of the Flight Safety Department suggested Wednesday that the hijack button might have been accidentally activated once the plane began falling apart.

Both the captain and copilot have a hijack button by their foot pedals that transmits a "danger signal," Sibir deputy general director Mikhail Koshman said.

"The signal is a coded message to air traffic controllers that makes it clear the plane is being hijacked," he said.

He said Sibir was not ruling out any version of what might have happened.

The airline said separately that its jet exploded in midair.

Despite the FSB's insistence that the crashes were connected to violations of aviation rules, Domodedovo and Sibir stressed that the planes had been maintained in full compliance with the law. Airline representatives of the other plane, Volga-Aviaexpress, were unavailable for comment.

Crewmembers on both aircraft apparently did not report any technical problems while in the air.

Light will be shed on what actually happened only when investigators finish sifting through the debris and decipher the planes' flight recorders, which have been recovered, said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst.

"If there were explosions on board, residual remains of explosives will soon be found on debris," he said. "And if the planes were shot down from the ground, there should be telling signs of shrapnel damage on what's left of the planes and the bodies."

He said he doubted the planes had been shot from the ground because there are no air defense forces in the areas where they went down.

Sibir said it highly doubted that air defense forces could have shot down its jet. "I doubt they would react so quickly," Koshman said. "It's unlikely. This is rather a scenario for American blockbuster films."