Ukrainian President Says Missile Probable Cause of Russian Plane Crash

Sunday, October 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) _ Ukraine's president said Sunday that a missile fired during military exercises was the most likely cause of an explosion that brought down a Russian airliner.

President Leonid Kuchma had earlier denied a claim by U.S. intelligence officials that a Ukrainian S-200 missile accidentally hit the Sibir Airlines plane over the Black Sea.

But Russian officials now agree with the U.S. theory, and Ukrainian officials have gradually been changing their stance.

``The most probable cause of the recent crash of a Russian Tu-154 airliner was that it was hit by a missile launched during Ukrainian air defense exercises in the Crimea,'' Kuchma said during a visit to the town of Kalush in the western region, the Interfax news agency reported.

However, he added ``No hasty conclusions should be made.''

The jet went down Oct. 4 off the Black Sea coast, near the Russian city of Sochi. All 78 people, most of them recent Russian immigrants to Israel, were killed.

Kuchma formerly directed a major Soviet missile factory. On Oct. 6 he cited his experience with missiles and said an accidental strike was impossible.

Russian investigators examining passengers' bodies and aircraft fragments have since found shrapnel like the kind used in the anti-aircraft missiles. They now believe a missile exploded as close as 50 feet from the plane, blasting it with shrapnel.

Both Ukraine's defense minister and air defenses chief have offered their resignations, though Kuchma has not yet accepted them.

``We don't know the causes of this tragedy today, but we know that we are related to it,'' Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk said Saturday at a news conference. He apologized to the victims' relatives and friends.