MOSCOW – Investigators combing through the wreckage of nearly simultaneous crashes of two Russian airliners found flight data recorders Wednesday that could help determine whether the 89 people killed were victims of tragic accidents or coordinated terrorist attacks.

Both passenger jets crashed within minutes of each other after taking off from the same Moscow airport late Tuesday night. There were no survivors. Russian investigators cautioned that terrorism was just one of several theories they are probing and that they also are looking into pilot error or a technical malfunction as possible causes.

But officials with Sibir Airlines, which operates the Tupolev-154 jet that disappeared in the Rostov-on-Don region 600 miles south of Moscow, confirmed Wednesday that the crew sent a signal to air traffic controllers indicating the plane was being hijacked.

The signal was sent moments before the plane disappeared from radar screens, according to a statement from the airline.

At the site of the other crash, 125 miles south of Moscow, witnesses said they heard two or three loud explosions moments before they saw a jet plummet from the sky.

All 43 people aboard the Tupolev-134 died.

“At first we thought it was thunder,” a young woman who said she witnessed the crash told the Russian television network NTV. “We heard three explosions and then saw the plane fall almost silently, without any noise.”

Guerrillas waging a decade-long conflict to break away the tiny North Caucasus republic of Chechnya from the rest of Russia have stepped up attacks on civilian targets.

Spokesmen for Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov denied any involvement in the airliner crashes. The crashes occurred just a few days before war-battered Chechnya holds a presidential election widely criticized as being orchestrated by the Kremlin. The election will produce a replacement for Akhmad Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin Chechen leader assassinated in a bomb blast in May. Earlier this summer, rebel leaders vowed to escalate attacks against Russians and kill whoever replaced Kadyrov.

Russian President Vladimir Putin cut short his vacation at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday and returned to Moscow, telling his top security officials in televised remarks that he hoped “the first step you will take will be providing us with the most objective and reliable information.”

Russian Prosecutor Gen. Vladimir Ustinov told Putin that flight data recorders at both crash sites have been recovered, and that technicians have begun analyzing data from the recorders. Sergei Ignatchenko, a spokesman for Russia’s intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, said investigators are looking into the possibility the crashes were terrorist acts, but they also haven’t ruled out other possible causes.

“This could have been low-quality fuel, pilot error or weather,” Ignatchenko said. “The terrorist act theory is being considered, but so far we have no data confirming that these were terrorist acts.”

Both airliners took off from the recently renovated Domodedovo International Airport, one of Moscow’s three airports. Sibir Airlines Flight 1047 took off at about 9:35 p.m. local time on Tuesday bound for Sochi. Forty minutes later, Volga-Aviaexpress Flight 1303 departed on its flight to Volgograd.

Air traffic controllers lost contact with both jets about 11 p.m. local time. The Sochi-bound flight crashed near Gluboky in southern Russia. The Volga Volga-Aviaexpress flight crashed outside the city of Tula.

In Gluboky, witnesses told Russian television crews they found books, shoes, and other passenger belongings scattered in their vegetable gardens and in the grassy fields surrounding the village. In the village of Buchalki, just outside Tula, witnesses said they saw fuselage debris and passenger belongings rain down moments before the Tupolev-134 crashed.

Russian officials at both crash sites assembled psychological support teams as they prepared for victims’ families to begin arriving to identify the bodies. All of the bodies were recovered from the crash site near Buchalki on Wednesday, but recovery of victims from the mangled fuselage of the Tupolev-154 outside Gluboky was expected to continue Thursday.

Security at airports across Russia was tightened Wednesday. At Domodedovo, the number of security personnel was increased and airport workers used canine units to help inspect luggage. Domodedovo spokesman Igor Tikhamirov defended the security procedures used to check passengers and luggage on both flights, but he did not elaborate. Ignatchenko said investigators are questioning all airport employees.

Tupolev jets are regarded as mainstays of the Russian commercial aviation fleet. According to the Web site, there have been 28 previous crashes of Tupolev-154 jets since 1973 and 25 of the Tupolev-134 since 1971. Mechanical trouble was cited as a cause in at least four of the Tupolev-154 crashes and two of the Tupolev-134 crashes.

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040825 Russia crashes

AP-NY-08-25-04 2134EDT

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