- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

BUCHALKI, Russia — Russian emergency workers searched heaps of twisted metal and tall grass yesterday for clues about what caused two airliners to plunge to earth within minutes of each other, killing all 89 persons aboard. Officials said one jet sent a hijack distress signal, raising fears that terrorists had struck.

Flight recorders from both planes were found and taken to Moscow for investigation, ITAR-Tass reported, indicating the question of what caused the twin disasters soon could be answered.

Russian security authorities said that explosives specialists were still working at the scenes of the crashes. They reported that terrorism remained a possible cause, although there was no evidence so far that terrorists were behind the tragedies.

Federal Security Service spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko said investigators still were questioning airport officials and airline and security employees at Domodedovo Airport, from which both flights departed 45 minutes apart.

A former National Transportation Safety Board vice chairman said coincidence was always possible, but seemed highly unlikely.

“There are obviously things that can lead to accidents. … The likelihood that you can have things lead to two accidents … at the same time … that’s a pretty heavy coincidence,” said Bob Francis, who was involved in investigating the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 off the Long Island, N.Y., coast.

The former head of security at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport said the timing of the crashes suggested terrorism.

“The timing indicates that this is probably a coordinated attack,” Rafi Ron said. “There was probably something on board that led the pilots to push the distress signal or submit a verbal signal. In my assumption, that must have been the result of a terrorist being on board.”

Neither Mr. Francis nor Mr. Ron had independent information about the crashes.

The airport on Moscow’s far south side operates a single terminal that serves both international and domestic flights. Both flights were serviced at and left from the domestic section.

The security service, known as the FSB, is a successor agency to the KGB. Officials there said that they were investigating other possibilities, such as technical failures, the use of poor-quality fuel, breaches of fueling regulations and pilot error. Rain and thunder were reported in the regions where both crashes occurred.

Rebels fighting a protracted war for independence for Chechnya, the troubled southern Russian province, have been blamed for a series of terror strikes that have claimed hundreds of lives in Russia in recent years. But rebel representative Akhmed Zakayev told Russia’s Ekho Moskvy Radio from London that Chechen forces and rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov were not connected to the crashes.

Russian officials claim that the Chechen rebels have al Qaeda connections. The fighters are blamed for a series of suicide bombings in Chechnya and in Moscow, including last winter’s blast outside a hotel adjacent to Red Square that killed five persons, and the double suicide bombing at a Moscow rock concert in which 15 spectators died. The Chechen fighters who held hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theater in 2002 included several women strapped with explosives.

Russian officials had expressed concern that separatists in the war-ravaged republic might carry out attacks ahead of a regional election Sunday to replace its pro-Moscow president who was killed in a May bombing.

A Sibir Airlines Tu-154 jet, carrying 46 persons, took off from Moscow’s newly redeveloped Domodedovo airport at 9:35 p.m. Tuesday and the other plane, a Tu-134 carrying 43 persons, left 40 minutes later, according to state-run Rossiya television.

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