Moscow A Russian chartered airliner carrying Israelis to Siberia for family visits exploded Thursday and crashed off the Black Sea coast with at least 76 people on board. U.S. officials said an anti-aircraft missile fired during a Ukrainian training exercise appeared to have accidentally brought down the plane.
The explosion on the flight from Tel Aviv raised fears of another terrorist attack, but a U.S. official, speaking in Washington on condition of anonymity, said "this looks to be a military training exercise gone terribly awry."
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry, however, said none of its weapons could have hit a civilian aircraft, and Russian 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."
Earlier, 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, said a terrorist act could have caused the Tupolev 154 to explode. The plane tumbled into the sea 114 miles off the Russian coastal city of Adler on the Georgian border.
The plane was on its way to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. It belonged to Sibir Airlines, which is based in Novosibirsk, about 1,750 miles east of Moscow, 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. All the passengers were Israeli, said Sergei Moslayov, a duty officer at the Emergency Situations Ministry.
Israeli officials said most of the passengers were immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were en route to Novosibirsk for family visits during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
In Washington, the U.S. official said the missile was fired from a land-based launcher in the Crimean region of Ukraine. It was believed to be an S-200, a surface-to-air missile of Russian design that is guided by radar to its target. The S-200 flies faster than three times the speed of sound, has a range of up to 185 miles and can hit targets above 100,000 feet.
Despite initial fears the plane was destroyed in a terrorist attack, the downing of the airliner appeared to be accidental, several U.S. officials said.
The military exercises were conducted on Cape Onuk, in Crimea, about 160 miles 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.
But Ukrainian Defense Ministry spokesman Kostyantyn Khivrenko said all the fired missiles were accounted for and none had come near the area of the explosion.
"The direction of the firing and the distance do not correspond to the plane's explosion site either in theory or in practice," he said. "All the hits by the rockets used during the exercise were recorded by corresponding devises and reached their targets."
The air force and air traffic regulators "did not record the presence of any civilian aircraft in the exercise area during the maneuvers," he said.,
Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk said in a statement that all the rockets used in the training exercise have "self-destruction mechanisms in case they deviated from their course."
If the missile theory were confirmed, this would not be the first time a commercial flight has been accidentally shot down. On July 3, 1988, the cruiser USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing all 270 aboard.
Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia's Federal Security Service, told Putin in a televised meeting that Russian officials had first learned of the crash from Armenian officials. He said planes and ships had been sent to the area of the crash. The Black Sea is a half-mile deep at the site of the crash, authorities said.
"We must launch rescue work, gather all we can and conduct expertise. If the sea depth allows that, we must try to recover the black box," Putin said.
An Emergency Situations Ministry officer in the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, Konstantin Ludchenko, told ORT television that 10 bodies have been recovered so far. He said that the Black Sea was 6,930 feet deep at the site of the crash.
Garik Ovanisian, the pilot of the Armenian An-24, said his plane was at 20,790 feet 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 36,300 feet," Ovanisian told AP. "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 Armenian plane was on a regularly scheduled flight over the Black Sea from the Ukrainian Crimean city of Simferopol to the Armenian capital Yerevan.
Immediately after the crash, Bush administration officials 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 told a meeting of visiting European justice ministers that "a civilian aircraft crashed today and it is possible that it is the result of a terrorist act."
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.
Vladimir Kofman, an official with the Interstate Aviation Committee, said the plane had made a stopover in Burgas, Bulgaria. However, Bulgarian officials vigorously denied that the plane had even entered Bulgaria's airspace.
After the crash, Israel suspended takeoffs of foreign flights from its main airport, Ben Gurion International near Tel Aviv.