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Wednesday, 21 August, 2002, 13:06 GMT 14:06 UK
Russia to mourn helicopter dead
Site of Chechnya crash
The helicopter crashed into a minefield
Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared Thursday a day of national mourning for the victims of the army helicopter disaster in Chechnya.

The giant Mi-26 troop transport came down near the regional capital, Grozny. So far, 115 people have been confirmed dead.

All the lads just lay down or lay there. There was no panic or anything like that

Private Sergei Shishayev
Reports that the helicopter was hit by a Chechen rebel surface-to-air missile have gained credence after Russia's chief prosecutor said it was the most likely cause of the crash.

The incident, which Russian media are already calling the "Second Kursk", has led to the suspension of the Russian army's aviation commander.

Mil Mi-26
  • Heavy lifting transport helicopter
  • Introduced 1983
  • Can carry more than 80 troops and equipment
  • Maximum speed 295 km/h

  • Looking tired and dishevelled, Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters he had found violations of flight procedures and promised a full and swift investigation.

    He dismissed reports that the helicopter had been overloaded as "absurd".

    Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, who has also arrived in the North Caucasus, said the theory of an attack from the ground was "the main one".

    A representative of the Chechen rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov, has told a Moscow radio station that the helicopter was shot down by two rockets.

    'No panic'

    Seven people escaped unharmed from the helicopter while another 26 are being treated for injuries.

    Details of the crash, in which the giant helicopter plunged into a mine-field near Grozny's Khankala as it tried to make an emergency landing, have emerged from survivors.

    "There was a flash on the right where the engine was," one unnamed soldier told Russian television.

    "I also heard some sort of bang. Then a black cloud of kerosene smoke covered everything. Then everything was like in a dream. I lost consciousness.

    "But when the helicopter was down on its belly, I came to. I realised I had to do something. It was dark and I ran back towards the tail."

    In an eerie echo of the Kursk submarine tragedy when surviving sailors waited for help after the initial explosion, another soldier, Private Sergei Shishayev, said the personnel aboard the giant helicopter had kept their cool:

    "There was no panic at all. All the lads just lay down or lay there. There was no panic or anything like that."

    Day of mourning

    Officers at Khankala have said they saw the trail of a rocket being fired at the helicopter and there are reports of an empty Russian-made Strela launcher being found in the vicinity.

    Mr Ivanov has now banned the use of Mi-26 transport helicopters in Chechnya and promised compensation for victims' relatives.

    Helicopter crashes in Chechnya
    Feb 2002 - Eight killed
    Jan 2002 - 14 senior Russian officials killed
    Sept 2001 - 10 passengers and three crew killed
    Aug 2001 - two killed
    July 2001 - nine troops killed
    Feb 2000 - 15 killed

    He also suspended the army's aviation commander, Colonel Vitaly Pavlov, until the investigation is completed.

    Russian newspapers have accused the military of gross negligence.

    On Thursday, flags will be flown at half-mast and television stations have been asked by President Putin to cancel entertainment programmes, and theatres to drop performances, as a mark of respect.

    Russian media report that national mourning over loss of life in Chechnya has been declared on only one previous occasion, despite the estimated deaths of tens of thousands of people in the conflict there.

    It was called in August 1996, during the first Chechen war, after about 200 Russian officers and men were killed when rebels seized Grozny in a lightning attack.

    The BBC's Steve Rosenberg
    "It's Russia's worst ever military air disaster"
    See also:

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