- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 25, 2004

MOSCOW — A Russian airliner crashed and a second disappeared from radar about the same time yesterday after both planes took off from the Moscow airport, raising fears that terrorism was involved.

There was no word on survivors among the 89 persons believed to be aboard the planes, which left from Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, Russian news agencies reported.

President Vladimir Putin ordered an investigation by the nation’s top intelligence agency, and security was tightened at airports across the country.

Early today, the Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed Russian official as saying a hijacking signal was activated on the missing plane.

Authorities have expressed concern that separatist rebels in the breakaway republic of Chechnya could carry out attacks linked to this Sunday’s presidential election there. Rebels have been blamed for a series of terror strikes that have claimed hundreds of lives.

Chechnya’s previous president, the pro-Russian Akhmad Kadyrov, was killed by a bombing in May.

Witnesses reported seeing an explosion before the first plane crashed about 125 miles south of Moscow, and authorities were not ruling out terrorism.

The Interfax news agency said emergency workers spotted a fire about 600 miles south of Moscow in the region where the second plane went missing.

Mr. Putin ordered the Federal Security Service to investigate, Russian news agencies reported. The service is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

A Tu-134 airliner with 43 persons aboard crashed in the Tula region, 125 miles south of Moscow, at 10:56 p.m. yesterday, Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Marina Ryklina said. She said the plane was carrying 35 passengers and a crew of eight.

ITAR-Tass reported that the plane belonged to Volgograd-based airline Volga-Aviaexpress and was being piloted by the company’s director. Rescuers found the jet’s tail near the village of Buchalki, Interfax reported.

A Tu-154 with 46 persons aboard lost contact with flight officials about three minutes later near Rostov-on-Don, about 600 miles south of Moscow, Miss Ryklina said. The jet belonged to the Russian airline Sibir, which said the plane disappeared from radar screens at about 11 p.m. yesterday, Interfax reported. There were 38 passengers and a crew of eight aboard.

The Interfax news agency later said emergency workers were headed to the region near the Ukrainian border to see whether the fire was from a crash.

Earlier, ITAR-Tass reported that emergency officials said the second plane crashed.

Quoting an unnamed air-traffic official in Moscow, ITAR-Tass said authorities were not ruling out terrorism. The agency also reported that witnesses said they saw an explosion before the Tula region crash.

The plane that crashed near Tula was headed to the southern city of Volgograd, while the plane that disappeared was flying to the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, where Mr. Putin was vacationing, ITAR-Tass reported.

The U.S. Homeland Security Department was monitoring the situation, but was not implementing any additional security measures in the United States, spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.

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