Moscow — A Russian airliner en route to Siberia from Tel Aviv with 76 people aboard exploded Thursday over the Black Sea just after Ukrainian troops launched a surface-to-air missile in a military training exercise, U.S. officials said.
The missile launch was picked up by satellites equipped with infrared sensors at the Defense Department's early warning center at Fort Meade, the officials said. The commercial airliner, which broke into pieces and fell into the Black Sea, may have been mistaken for an unmanned target, one official said.
Russian ships rushed to the crash site about 114 miles off the Georgian coast of the Black Sea, but there were no survivors, according to news reports. Rescue workers recovered only dead bodies among the floating suitcases and debris.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry denied its forces shot down the plane, which was carrying Russian immigrants who recently became Israeli citizens. Kostyantyn Khivrenko, a ministry spokesman, said the rockets were not fired close enough to the plane to hit it, or even in the plane's direction. "All the hits by the rockets used during the exercise were recorded by corresponding devices and reached their targets," he said.
The Ukrainian military was conducting exercises involving the firing of surface-to-air missiles, such as the S-200, known in the West as the SA-5 "Gammon," which has a range that would have been capable of reaching the commercial jet.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia said Thursday night that the plane was too far away from the rocket launchers to have been hit. He added that Russian servicemen had observed the exercise. "There is no reason why we should not trust them or Ukrainian defense officials," he said.
All theories pursued
In Israel, Interior Minister Natan Sharansky said the Pentagon had told Israeli officials that a stray missile might have downed the plane. Still, he said, investigators were pursuing all theories, including a terrorist attack.
The plane, a Tupolev Tu-154 passenger jet, departed Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport at 9:58 a.m. local time. Security checks at the airport are typically very stringent. On board Sibir Airlines' weekly Flight 1812 to Novosibirsk were 51 Israeli citizens, most of them recent immigrants taking advantage of the Jewish holiday Sukkot to visit relatives.
The other 13 passengers were believed to be mostly Russians. There were a dozen crew members, also Russian, including an airline inspector present for a routine check of the pilots' skills. About half the seats were empty. After about an hour and 45 minutes in the air, the plane was over the Black Sea at an altitude of 36,300 feet.
At the same time, Ukrainian naval, air, rocket and artillery forces were conducting exercises about 160 miles away, in the Crimean region of Ukraine. They were firing anti-aircraft rockets, including the S-125, which NATO has designated the SA-3; the S-200; and the S-300, which NATO calls the SA-10 or SA-12.
The S-200 has a range of 185 miles, flies faster than three times the speed of sound and can hit targets above 100,000 feet.
'Everything was normal'
The pilot called ground control to report that "everything was normal," according to a spokesman for the airline. Five minutes later, the plane disappeared from flight controllers' radar screens.
One U.S. official said a satellite detected "the launch of a missile at almost precisely the same time the airliner went down." He added, "There are other indicators that also point in that direction." Ukrainian news reports said the airspace would be closed Friday in the area where the plane went down.
Another U.S. official said the plane was apparently hit by an S-200 missile. He said the missile must have missed its real target, and a device aboard the missile, known as a "semi-active seeker" sought out the passenger jet instead.
Sibir Airlines officials said there was no distress call from the plane. But in the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta, a duty officer told a television station that he heard "Mayday, mayday!" and then conversation in Russian.
The pilot of an Armenian airplane, flying 16,000 feet below the Russian aircraft, heard a loud clap and saw a flash, according to news reports. Interviewed in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, pilot Garik Ovanisian told the Associated Press: "I saw an explosion on the plane. 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."
Recovery chances small
In Moscow, Putin ordered rescue teams to search carefully for the flight data recorder. But officials said what is left of the plane is submerged in deep water and the chances of recovery are slim. Israel also sent a combined naval and air force team to the region to search for survivors. By late Thursday night, 10 bodies had been recovered.
In Novosibirsk, 1,750 miles east of Moscow, officials of Sibir Airlines said they doubted the disaster was caused by either pilot error or a malfunction. Yevgeny Filyanin, a spokesman, said the 10-year-old plane was one of the carrier's best. It underwent a full overhaul in December 1999, he said, and had 6,500 hours of service left before it was due for another.
Grief-stricken relatives gathered in the airports at Tel Aviv and Novosibirsk. Avraham Berkowitz, who heads the Federation of Jewish Communities in Russia and the former Soviet republics, tried to arrange counseling services for relatives. "The cause of this is all the heightened risks and tensions all over the world," he said. "It's an Israeli tragedy, and it's a Russian tragedy as well."
After the crash, Israel halted all departures for more than four hours, leaving some 4,000 passengers stranded in the terminals, on planes and on sidewalks around the airport. But soon after 7 p.m., the authorities gave the green light for the delayed planes to take off again.