A Syrian-bound Russian military plane carrying 92 persons including Red Army Choir members crashed in the Black Sea minutes after taking off from Sochi.
According to a Reuters Report, the Tu-154 model plane, belonging to the Russian defense ministry, crashed shortly after leaving the southern city of Adler at 5.40am (2.40am GMT). There were no survivors.
Twelve bodies were said to have been recovered off the coast of the resort city of Sochi, as a frantic search operation continued to find the missing.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the defence affairs committee at the upper house of Russian parliament, said he ‘totally excluded’ terrorism as a possible cause of the crash because the plane was operated by the military.
A security source indicated the plane had crashed because of a technical malfunction or a pilot error.
Tu-154 aircraft have been involved in a number of accidents in the past.
In April 2010 many high-ranking Polish officials, including then president Lech Kaczynski, were killed when a Tu-154 airliner went down in thick fog while approaching the Smolensk airport in western Russia.
A Tu-154, operated by Siberian Airlines, was shot down over the Black Sea in October 2001, killing 78 people.
The plane was travelling from Tel Aviv in Israel to Novosibirsk in Russia, and most of the passengers were Israeli.
The plane, a Soviet-era design first introduced in the 1970s, had been on a routine flight to Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in western Syria, which has been used to launch air strikes in Moscow’s military campaign supporting its ally President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s devastating civil war.
Among the 84 passengers on the plane were 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, the army’s official musical group internationally known as the Red Army Choir, who were travelling to Syria to participate in New Year celebrations at the airbase.
Nine journalists were among the passengers, with state-run channels Pervy Kanal, NTV and Zvezda saying they each had three staff onboard the flight.
There were also eight soldiers, two civil servants, and an NGO member.
There were also eight crew members on board.
The passenger list released by the Defence Ministry included Yelizaveta Glinka, a prominent charity activist and humanitarian worker who served on the Kremlin human rights council.
Mikhail Fedotov, who heads the council, said Glinka was travelling to Syria to bring medication to a university hospital near the airbase.
Anton Gubankov, the chief of the Directorate of Culture of the Russian Defense Ministry, was also on the list.
Ralina Gilmanova, 22, and her fiancé Mikhail, who were members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, were also killed.
The young couple were engaged last year and due to marry soon.
Ralina Gilmanova, 22, and her fiancé Mikhail, who were members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, were on the flight that crashed in the Black Sea
The young couple, both in the choir, were engaged last year and due to marry ‘soon’
Sixty-four members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, the army’s official musical group, and its conductor Valery Khalilov (pictured) were on board the plane travelling to Syria
The Alexandrov Ensemble is the official choir of the Russian military, and it also includes a band and a dancing company.
It was founded in 1928 during the Soviet era.
It takes its name from its first director, Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov, who wrote the music to the national anthem of the Soviet Union.
The ensemble consists of between 100 and 120 members depending on the type of performance given.
Since their performance at the airbase in Syria was going to be mostly a cappella, only the choir and a handful dancers were aboard the plane, Russian media reported.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin was being kept updated on the search operation.
Putin said Russia will observe a national day of mourning tomorrow.
A spokesman for the defence ministry said: ‘Fragments of the Tu-154 plane of the Russian defence ministry were found 1.5 kilometres from the Black Sea coast of the city of Sochi at a depth of 50 to 70 metres. No survivors have been spotted.
‘Four ships, four helicopters, one aircraft and drones are involved in the search and rescue operation. Six ships and vessels of the Black Sea fleet, remotely operated submersibles and 63 divers have been additionally sent to the crash area. Fifty more divers from other fleets will be brought to the crash area in about an hour,’ the ministry added.
Deputy Defence Minister Pavel Popov has flown to Adler to look into the circumstances surrounding the crash.
The plane underwent routine maintenance in September and was flown by an experienced pilot, according to the defence ministry. The aircraft had been in service since 1983 and flown some 7,000 hours since.
A source told the Interfax agency the plane had not sent an SOS signal. An audio recording played on Russian media and said to be of the final conversation between air traffic controllers and the plane showed no sign of any difficulties being faced by the crew.
Russia’s Investigative Committee said a criminal probe had been launched to determine whether violations of air transportation safety had led to the crash.
Investigators are currently questioning the technical personnel responsible for preparing the plane for take-off, the committee said.
Russia’s official weather forecast agency said conditions near the airport were ‘normal, easy,’ the Interfax news agency reported.