Russian investigator says missile downed plane, Ukrainian says his country could be at fault

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

MOSCOW (AP) _ The chief investigator in the crash of a Russian airliner said Friday the plane was hit by an anti-aircraft missile, and a Ukrainian official said his nation's forces could have been responsible.

The Tu-154 airliner went down Oct. 4 off the Black Sea coast near the Russian city of Sochi after an explosion on board. All 78 people on the plane, most of them recent Russian immigrants to Israel, were killed.

Hours after the crash, U.S. officials said the tragedy had been caused by an S-200 missile fired mistakenly by Ukrainian forces during military exercises on the Crimean Peninsula, which juts into the Black Sea.

Vladimir Rushailo, head of the investigatory commission, told reporters in Sochi that the plane had indeed been hit by a missile.

``The Tu-154 crashed because it was hit by the warhead of an anti-aircraft missile while flying from Tel Aviv to Novosibirsk,'' Rushailo said in comments broadcast over Russian television.

He said the plane was flying at its planned altitude and along an international route that had not been under any restrictions because of the military exercises.

He added that investigators were continuing to examine fragments of the downed plane.

Pressure has been mounting on Ukraine's leadership to take responsibility for the crash. Ukrainian military officials have heatedly denied they were at fault, but Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said Thursday that Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk had submitted his resignation immediately after the tragedy. The resignation was rejected.

On Friday, for the first time, a Ukrainian official admitted that the plane may have been hit by Ukrainian fire.

``The reason for the crash could be an unintentional hit by an S-200 missile during the Ukrainian air defense exercises,'' Yevhen Marchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Security Council and another member of the investigatory commission, told reporters.

He said it could have been the result of a malfunction in the missile.

``As a Ukrainian citizen, it is painful for me to say this, but there is a lot of information to support such a version,'' Marchuk said.

Marchuk said the investigators would make their final conclusions after further research.

Kuchma on Friday ordered the creation of a Ukrainian interagency commission to look into the causes of the tragedy, together with Russia, Ukrainian television reported.

Russian investigators had initially focused on the possibility of a terrorist attack, but officials signaled over the weekend that they were considering the Ukrainian missile theory ever more likely.

On Tuesday, a top investigator, former Soviet Air Force chief Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, said experts had found fragments resembling the missile's payload at the Black Sea crash site.

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted Sergei Fridinsky, deputy prosecutor general, as saying on Wednesday that carbon monoxide was found in the victims' blood, proving there had been a fire on board the airplane before it crashed.

And on Thursday, investigators said that metal fragments similar to shrapnel contained in the missile's warhead were found in victims' bodies and in the body of the plane.

Many Ukrainian lawmakers on Thursday urged the military to take responsibility.

``Representatives of the state's highest military management responsible for the Russian Tu-154 airliner's catastrophe must resign,'' deputy parliament speaker Viktor Medvedchuk said.