By Susannah Cullinane, Ashley Fantz and Max Blau
PHILADELPHIA (CNN) — A massive search and rescue operation is under way in the Black Sea after a Russian military plane crashed Sunday with 92 on board. Eleven bodies have so far been recovered.
Terrorism was not a likely cause of the crash, Kremlin spokesman Dimitri Peskov said in a call with reporters Monday. Russia’s transport minister said it was assumed the plane had crashed due to technical malfunction or pilot error.
The Tupolev Tu-154 plane carrying 84 passengers and eight crew crashed in the Black Sea near Sochi, after disappearing from radar Sunday morning local time, state-run Ria Novosti news agency reported.
The Defense Ministry said there appeared to be no survivors. Russia is observing a national day of mourning Monday.
The ministry said 3,500 search and rescue personnel currently are involved in the search.
“Ships, divers and aircraft keep arriving in the search operation area. The search-and-rescue operation has 39 ships and cutters, 135 divers and 7 deep-water vehicles.
“Military personnel of the Southern Military district keep examining the shoreline to find and collect the bodies, debris of the plane and personal belongings of passengers,” it said.
A military plane carrying 10 bodies and fragments of debris had flown to Moscow on Monday where DNA testing would be carried out, the ministry said.
It said experts had been able to more precisely locate the crash site by using data from radio location equipment, but that the search was complicated by varying sea depth.
The Tupolev plane was carrying members of the army’s official choir — the Alexandrov Ensemble –“flying to congratulate Russian air force pilots in Syria with the New Year,” Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashekov said Sunday.
The plane took off from Moscow and was headed to the Russian Hmeymim airbase in Latakia, Syria, where Russia has a large military presence, a source told Russia’s state news agency Tass.
En route to Syria, the plane landed in Sochi to refuel, the Defense Ministry’s press service told Russia’s Interfax news agency.
Why the plane crashed is not yet known.
Putin has ordered Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to lead an investigation, according to Russian news agency Sputnik.
Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said Monday that “the major versions do not include the terrorist attack, so we assume that the cause of the crash could be either technical malfunction or pilot error,” according to state-run TASS.
It quoted Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security, as saying he completely ruled out terrorism.
“I rule out version of the terror attack completely. It is the aircraft of the Ministry of Defense, the airspace of the Russian Federation, there cannot be such a version,” Ozerov is quoted as saying. “The plane had to make a U-turn after takeoff over the sea (and) may (have taken) the wrong direction.”
Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said Monday that “the major versions do not include the terrorist attack, so we assume that the cause of the crash could be either technical malfunction or pilot error,” according to TASS.
The Russian Investigation Committee has launched a routine criminal investigation to examine potential “violation of rules of flight safety or preparation,” committee spokesperson Svetlana Petrenko earlier told Tass. The committee plans to seize documents and interrogate those who prepared the plane for flight, she added.
CNN Meteorologist Derek Van Dam said no major weather patterns were present at the time of the plane’s disappearance.
According to a Defense Ministry list, among those on board were eight crew members, eight soldiers and more than 60 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, including its conductor Valery Kahlilov.
Since 1928, the Alexandrov Ensemble has grown into a immensely popular tradition due to its unending government support. It has toured the world performing Russian folk songs, World War II anthems and patriotic music, and was dubbed “Russia’s singing weapon.”
Another passenger was the famous Russian human rights activist, Liza Glinka, according to CNN affiliate RBC. She was bringing medicine and other supplies to a local hospital in Syria, her colleague and friend Dr. Sergey Kurkov told RBC.
A Facebook page for Glinka’s charity “Fair Aid” carried a post mourning “this huge loss for our entire nation.”
Nine journalists, including three reporters with Star TV, were also on board, the Defense Ministry said on its television network.
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