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Russia Turns to Black Boxes for Plane Crash Clues

Reuters | August 25 2004

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Investigators pinned hope on black boxes on Thursday to explain why two Russian planes crashed almost simultaneously, killing at least 89 people and raising fears of terrorism ahead of polls in rebel Chechnya.

Relatives of those who died made their way to the two crash sites in southern Russia, where investigators had scoured miles of debris for clues as to why the planes destined for different cities crashed within four minutes of each other.

Others stood in disbelief at Moscow's Domodedovo airport, from where the two planes had set off -- one to the Black Sea resort of Sochi and the other to the southern town of Volgograd.

"My daughter and son-in-law were in there. They had a wedding party on Friday. They were going on a honeymoon," Anatoly Zvaygintsev told Russian television. "They had not even yet changed their (names on their) passports."

Many asked why the disaster had happened.

Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov said he could not rule out a terrorist act or human and technical errors at a Wednesday meeting with President Vladimir Putin, who rushed to Moscow after breaking off his holiday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. He declared Thursday a day of mourning.

The four black boxes, retrieved from two countryside sites where slabs of twisted metal, seats and clothing were scattered for miles, were shipped to Moscow late on Wednesday.

"The special laboratories of the Intergovernmental Aviation Committee are equipped with all the necessary technical means," a representative of the committee told Itar-Tass news agency.

"(But) everything depends on how well the recordings have been saved."

One aircraft, a Tu-134 flying to Volgograd, went down near the town of Tula south of Moscow. Moments later and 500 miles away, a Tu-154 bound for Sochi crashed near Rostov-on-Don.

Sibir Airlines said the pilots of the Tu-154 had triggered a hijack alert just before their plane crashed. It had 46 passengers and crew on board.

Volga-Aviaexpress, a small regional carrier which owned the Tu-134, said the crew did not report any problems on board before the plane crashed with 43 passengers and crew. The Emergencies Ministry later said 44 people were aboard.

Officials declined to link the crashes to the shattered region of Chechnya, where Russia has been battling separatists for a decade. Rebels launched a major raid on the local capital, Grozny, last week and have vowed to disrupt Sunday's election there.

Moderate Chechen separatists denied any role in the crashes.

Putin has ordered the FSB security services to investigate the case, which it is normally only asked to do if terrorism is suspected. He also gave control of all airport security to the Interior Ministry, local media reported.

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