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A Russian military plane crashed Sunday on its way to Syria with no sign of survivors among the 92 people on board, including 64 members of the famed Red Army Choir who were en route to celebrate the New Year with troops.
Russian news agencies cited defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying the Tu-154 plane had crashed shortly after take-off at 5:40am local time (0240 GMT) from the southern city of Adler, where it had been refuelling.
Konashenkov said that no survivors had been found at the crash site.
Several bodies have been recovered so far off the coast of the resort city of Sochi after authorities launched a frantic search operation.
“Fragments of the Tu-154 plane of the Russian defence ministry were found 1.5 kilometres from the Black Sea coast of the city of Sochi at a depth of 50 to 70 metres,” the ministry said.
The plane had been on a routine flight to Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in western Syria, which has been used to launch air strikes in Moscow’s military campaign supporting its ally President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s devastating civil war.
Among the plane’s passengers were Russian servicemen as well as 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, the army’s official musical group (also known as the Red Army Choir) and its conductor, Valery Khalilov. They were headed to Syria to participate in New Year celebrations at the airbase.
There were also eight crew members on board, the ministry said.
Nine journalists were among the passengers, with state-run channels Pervy Kanal, NTV and Zvezda saying they each had three staff on board the flight.
A list of passengers published by the defence ministry also included Elizaveta Glinka, a doctor and charity worker who serves on the Kremlin human rights council.
Mikhail Fedotov, who heads the council, said Glinka was travelling to Syria to bring medication to a university hospital in the coastal city of Latakia near the airbase, agencies reported.
Day of mourning
More than 3,000 rescue workers on 32 ships – including more than 100 divers flown in from across Russia – were searching the crash site along the shore, the defence ministry said.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told news agencies that President Vladimir Putin was being kept updated on the search operation. Peskov added that Putin was in constant contact with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The Russian president went on television to declare Monday a nationwide day of mourning. “We will conduct a thorough investigation into the reasons and will do everything to support the victims’ families,” Putin said.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly sent a condolence letter to Putin, saying he received news of the crash “with deep grief and sadness”.
Konashenkov said that Deputy Defence Minister Pavel Popov had flown to Adler along with a team tasked with clarifying the circumstances surrounding the crash.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said a criminal probe had been launched to determine whether violations of air transportation safety had led to the crash. Investigators are currently questioning the technical personnel responsible for preparing the plane for take-off, the committee said.
Russia’s Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said all possible causes were being considered, including a potential terror attack.
Tu-154 aircraft have been involved in a number of accidents in the past.
In April 2010 many high-ranking Polish officials, including then president Lech Kaczynski, were killed when a Tu-154 airliner went down in thick fog while approaching the Smolensk airport in western Russia.
Moscow has been conducting a bombing campaign in Syria in support of Assad since September 2015 and has taken steps to boost its presence in the country.
In October, Putin approved a law ratifying Moscow’s deal with Damascus to deploy its forces in the country indefinitely, firming up Russia’s long-term presence in Syria.
Russian warplanes have flown out of the Hmeimim base to conduct air strikes, and the base is also home to an S-400 air defence system.