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Russia considering missile theory on airliner explosion; experts arrive to identify victims

Updated:

SOCHI, Russia (AP) _ An Israeli team arrived Sunday to help identify bodies from the crash of a Russian airliner, as Russian officials appeared to be preparing to accept the U.S. contention that Ukraine mistakenly shot down the plane.

After initially dismissing the theory, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Saturday that President Vladimir Putin was dissatisfied with information provided by the Ukrainians.

Ivanov said he had asked for more technical details on Ukraine's military exercises on Thursday, when the airplane exploded, killing all 78 on board.

``All versions must be considered, including the interconnection with the Ukrainian air defense exercises,'' Ivanov said in comments broadcast on Russian television.

A 21-member Israeli delegation arrived in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi on Sunday to aid the investigation. Most of the victims were Russian-born Israeli immigrants, many of whom were headed back to Russia to visit relatives over the Sukkot holiday.

The Sibir Airlines Tupolev 154, en route from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk, exploded and crashed into the sea 114 miles off the Russian coastal city of Adler, near Sochi.

U.S. intelligence officials have said the plane was hit by a Ukrainian missile during military exercises, which took place 155 miles away. The missile was tracked by U.S. satellites.

Vladimir Potapov, a deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, said Russian Defense Ministry experts were sent Sunday to help with the investigation, and that a Ukrainian military team led by a high-ranking general would arrive Monday.

The Israeli delegation included forensic experts and three Jewish military chaplains, one of whom carried a large box containing a Torah scroll. The rabbis were to observe Jewish death rites.

Igor Maslakov, Sochi's chief forensic expert, said the Israelis brought dental and fingerprint records to identify passengers.

Rabbi Berl Lazar, one of Russia's chief rabbis, went to Sochi to help families make funeral arrangements. He said it was ``unrealistic'' to hope that more victims would be found.

Salvage workers have recovered 14 bodies and the fragments of one other body and brought them to Sochi. Eight have been identified, and five were confirmed to be Israeli citizens, said Leonid Baklitsky, the regional deputy governor in charge of the recovery operation.

Baklitsky said the search operation was continuing, but nothing new had been found Sunday. He said a boat would bring relatives of the victims to the crash site on Monday, where they will leave flowers for the victims.

Vladimir Rushailo, the head of the Security Council, told reporters in Sochi on Saturday that the Sibir Airlines plane was ``hit by an explosion.'' He said objects that were not part of the plane had been found and were being examined, but he refused to give details.

But two officials involved with the salvage effort described a cylindrical object that they could not immediately identify. Sergei Kargin, deputy head of the Sochi rescuers' service, described it as looking like a log 55 to 66 feet long.

U.S. intelligence officials believe the plane was hit by a Ukrainian S-200, or SA-5, missile _ a large surface-to-air missile built to shoot down heavy bombers flying at high altitudes _ during exercises on the Crimean Peninsula, which juts into the Black Sea.

The New York Times on Saturday quoted an unidentified official at the Severny Zavod missile factory saying that similar missiles down aircraft not by ramming them and exploding, but by spraying them with steel balls. It is not unusual for the body of the missile to survive the attack, the source said.
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