Russian investigators on Thursday said there was likely no bomb blast aboard the military jet that crashed off the Black Sea coast, as they revealed new details from flight recorders recently retrieved from the wreckage.
The three-engine Tu-154, flying to Syria from the southern Russian city of Sochi, crashed shortly after take-off on Sunday, killing all 92 aboard. Why it did remains a mystery, although Russian officials are leaning toward accidental causes, like mechanical problems or pilot error, rather than a deliberate act of sabotage.
“It is clear that there was a technical malfunction,” said Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov during a briefing in Moscow. “What caused it remains to be explained by the experts.”
More than a year after Russia first deployed military aircraft and special forces in Syria, blowback in the form of a terrorist attack has become a growing concern. Investigators on Thursday said that the information revealed by the flight recorders had not eliminated the chance this was a terrorist attack, although it had made it less likely.
“We arrived at the conclusion that there was no explosion aboard,” said Sergei Bainetov, the head of the Russian Armed Forces’ flight safety service, said at a briefing in Moscow. “However, a terror attack does not have to be an explosion. Other causes are possible. Hence, we have not ruled out this theory for now.”
Bainetov also said that an analysis of the pilots’ remarks before the crash indicated an “emergency situation” on board, although he did not elaborate on what was said.
Earlier, the Russian tabloid Life, which is close to the security services and regularly obtains surveillance camera footage after accidents, said the captain yelled “the flaps!” and a string of profanities shortly before the plane crashed. The flight was in the air for a total of 70 seconds and reached a maximum altitude of 820 feet, Bainetov said on Thursday.
Sokolov said that 19 full bodies, along with 230 body parts, had been retrieved by divers at the crash site.
The Tu-154, which has been in service for 33 years, was once the workhorse of the commercial airline industry here and is still widely used by government ministries.
It has been involved in serious crashes in Russia and abroad in recent years. Most significantly, the plane that crashed in 2010 carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and other senior Polish officials was a Tu-154. None survived.
Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict has made the country a target for terrorism. An Islamic State affiliate in Egypt planted a bomb aboard a Russian passenger jet in 2015, killing 224 people aboard, mostly vacationers returning from the resorts in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Last week, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was shot to death at a public event in an art gallery in downtown Ankara. The assassin, a 22-year-old police officer named Mevlut Mert Altintas, declared “don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria,” moments after the killing.
The attacks have done little to change Russian policy in Syria or influence a rollback of the Russian military deployment there. Russia has sought to strengthen its cooperation with Turkey in Syria despite Karlov’s killing as the Kremlin hammers out a coalition without the United States that can determine the fate of the conflict.
Since the attack on the Russian passenger jet in Egypt, Russia has widened its footprint in Syria, deploying new aircraft, special forces ground troops and the country’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to the region.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Andrew Roth