- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

MOSCOW A Russian military helicopter loaded with troops crashed in Chechnya yesterday, killing at least 74 persons, possibly after it was shot down by Chechen rebels, Russian news agencies reported.

The Mi-26 the most powerful transport helicopter in the world went down near the Russian military headquarters at Khankala, near the Chechen capital, Grozny.

The 110-foot helicopter, which news agencies said had more than 100 people on board, burst into flames, and the fire was hampering rescue efforts, officials said.

Investigators were examining two main possible causes of the crash that the helicopter was shot down from the ground or suffered a technical problem, Deputy Prosecutor General Sergei Fridinsky told the Interfax news agency.

There were varying reports on how many troops were killed.

The Russian military headquarters in Chechnya initially said there were no deaths. But hours later, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov offered condolences to relatives of servicemen killed in the crash though he did not say how many had died.

The Interfax and Itar-Tass news agencies reported that at least 80 soldiers were killed, citing sources at the headquarters. Interfax later adjusted its toll to 74, saying 106 servicemen were on board the helicopter and 32 survived. Interfax had reported earlier that 112 were on board.

The military headquarters said that there were at least 25 injured, but that fire and smoke from the crash hampered efforts to determine the number of casualties. All five crew members survived, said Col. Boris Podoprigora, the deputy commander of Russian troops in Chechnya.

The head of the Defense Ministry press office, Nikolai Deryabin, told ORT state television that the pilot had requested permission to perform an emergency landing because an engine was on fire.

There were indications the helicopter may have been overloaded. The Mi-26, which has a 40-foot-long passenger compartment, is supposed to carry a maximum of 82 persons, Col. Podoprigora said. The craft, which has a single eight-rotor blade on top, is designed to carry loads of up to 20 tons.

The crash came amid a spate of rebel actions against federal forces, including attacks late last week in southwestern Chechnya that killed nine servicemen and five civilians. Some sources said rebels were intensifying their actions to press the Russian government to enter peace negotiations.

A Chechen rebel representative met last week in Geneva with Ivan Rybkin, a former head of Russia's Security Council, to talk about restarting talks stalled since last year.

The government maintains that the war in Chechnya, begun in the fall of 1999, is all but over, with isolated groups of rebels holding out. However, rebels unleash daily attacks that sap the military's manpower and morale.

Most of the attacks are small-scale, targeting soldiers and Chechen police and civilian officials who cooperate with them. But the rebels have made some high-profile hits against top officers.

In September 2001, two generals and 11 other Russian servicemen died when their helicopter was shot down by a shoulder-fired missile shortly after takeoff from Grozny.

Another helicopter, an Mi-8 carrying two top Interior Ministry officials and 12 other persons, crashed in Chechnya in January. Officials say they believe that it also may have been shot down.

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