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Friday, 5 October, 2001, 21:44 GMT 22:44 UK
Analysis: Terrorism or tragic accident?
A piece of wreckage is transferred onto a salvage ship
Investigators hope the wreckage will provide vital clues
By the BBC's Russian Affairs Analyst, Stephen Dalziel

More than 24 hours after a Russian Tupolev-154 airliner crashed into the Black Sea, with the loss of all 78 people on board, the cause of the disaster is still unknown.

In the current international climate, following the attacks on the United States last month, and given that the plane took off from Israel, many immediately assumed that this was a terrorist attack.


But another theory quickly came to light.

An anonymous official from the US Department of Defense in Washington said that the aircraft had been shot out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile fired by a Ukrainian air defence unit during a training exercise on the Crimean peninsula.

A Ukrainian official appeared to confirm this; but then Kiev issued a statement saying that it was impossible.

Possibility

On Friday afternoon, though, the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Anatoly Kinakh, admitted that this might be a possibility.

Certainly, in the absence of hard facts - the aircraft's black box flight recorders are believed to be lying in 2,000 metres of water, and may never be recovered - circumstantial evidence suggests that the Ukrainian missile theory could be the strongest.

A Siberia Airlines TU-154 similar to the lost plane
TU-154s do not have an impressive safety record

It seems inconceivable that an explosive device was put on board before the plane took off from Tel Aviv.

Even before the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September, security at Israeli airports was already among the tightest in the world.

There is always the possibility of mechanical failure.

Unimpressive record

The Tupolev-154 does not have an impressive safety record since it came into service in the 1970s.

But the lack of any Mayday call before the plane crashed threw doubts over this theory.

Which leaves the surface-to-air missile.

An air defence exercise was taking place at the eastern end of the Crimean Peninsula at the time.

S200 and S300 missiles were firing at unmanned target aircraft.

Wrong signal

The S200 can have a range up to 300 kilometres (190 miles), which could have reached the airliner.

The missiles were supposed to have dummy warheads but what if at least one was carrying a live warhead?

That is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

18 months ago, a Ukrainian missile hit a block of flats in a town north of Kiev during a military exercise.

And it is possible that the aircraft itself could have given off the wrong radar signal.

When a US warship shot down an Iranian passenger jet some years ago, it was because the plane had been repaired using parts from a military aircraft.

Doomed

This confused US radar into thinking that a military jet was heading towards it.

The Russian airliner - belonging to Sibir Air, one of the small airlines which emerged following the break-up of the Soviet Union 10 years ago - could also have been carrying military parts which "fooled" the missile into thinking it was a military aircraft.

Mourning relatives
78 people were killed

Once the missile had latched onto the jet's signal, the aircraft was doomed.

If this is what happened, Ukraine's reaction would be in line with Soviet methods of dealing with accidents: deny everything, until the proof becomes incontrovertible.

In 1983, when a Korean airliner was shot down by air defence fighter jets while flying over the island of Sakhalin in the Far East, the Russian military denied responsibility at first.

Then the military authorities blamed the pilot for being off course.

Cover-up

And later they accused the United States of using the plane for a spying mission.

In 1986, rumours of a radioactive leak from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were hushed up, until international evidence of the world's worst nuclear accident became overwhelming.

Only last year, the Russian Navy admitted that there was "a problem" with one of their nuclear submarines; but it was over a week before they admitted that the Kursk had exploded and sunk with the loss of all 118 crew.

Perhaps the strongest evidence comes from Washington.

The Black Sea area is one of vital strategic importance, especially now.

The US will be monitoring the region very closely from spy satellites and AWACS reconnaissance aircraft.

The fact that the Defense Department came out so quickly to say that a Ukrainian missile had shot down the airliner suggests that the US had seen something which aroused in them very deep suspicions.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Sarah Nelson in Moscow
"The recovery of the cockpit is likely to yield important clues about why the plane crashed"
The BBC's Orla Guerin in Tel Aviv
"There has been no explanation"
The BBC's Jonathan Charles in Moscow
"There was a live firing exercise taking place on the Black Sea"
See also:

05 Jul 01 | Europe
Russia mourns plane crash victims
04 Jul 01 | Europe
How safe is the Tu-154?
03 Jul 01 | Europe
Russia's shaky air safety record
05 Oct 01 | World Cup 2002
Fifa calls off Israel match
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