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Tuesday, 20 August, 2002, 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK
Russia outraged by Chechnya crash
Mi-26 helicopter in Belarus
The Mi-26 is one of the world's largest helicopters
The Russian military has come under heavy criticism over a helicopter crash in Chechnya on Monday in which 105 people are reported to have died and 33 people were injured.

Vladimir Putin
President Putin described the incident as a "catastrophe"
A Russian investigation team which has arrived at the scene of the crash near the Chechen capital, Grozny, says it is open-minded about the causes of the crash.

But there is public scepticism about the authorities' handling of the incident, and a consensus is growing that the huge Mi-26 was shot down by a rebel missile.

Russian television is reporting that the commander of Russian ground forces aviation, Colonel Vitaly Pavlov, has been suspended until the investigation is completed.

Russian newspapers have voiced anger at apparent attempts by the authorities to conceal events surrounding the crash - the seventh of its kind in recent months - and have accused the military of gross negligence.

The reports suggest this may be the biggest single loss the Russian army has suffered in the three-year Chechen war.

Rocket attack

The inquiry team is investigating two theories - that the helicopter was brought down by a missile, or that it crashed due to a technical function.

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
Chechen rebels are maintaining that they shot the helicopter down. The separatist news agency Kavkaz Centre described the crash as the "greatest act of sabotage by Chechen fighters in two years".

And more and more witness reports are emerging to support their claim.

Prior to crash-landing metres away from the Khankala army base, the pilot reported a loud bang in the right engine and a fire.

Officers at the base where the helicopter was headed have said they saw a small rocket following the helicopter.

Local residents have made similar claims.

The pilots of a smaller helicopter, which was following the Mi-26, also say they saw rocket traces going towards the larger aircraft.

And survivors have also spoken of a missile hit.

But the BBC's Nikolai Gorshkov in Moscow says the Russian military command is reluctant to accept this theory, because it will mean a major embarrassment for the generals who have long claimed that the rebels were all but crushed.

Media anger

Our correspondent says the military's handling of the crash is reminiscent of its response to the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster two years ago.

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

  • And there has been similar media criticism of the armed forces, voicing anger at an apparent cover-up attempt.

    The Izvestiya newspaper says the military are "as usual" trying to conceal the number of dead and wounded.

    And Vremya Novostey says if rebel action is found to have brought down the helicopter, it will lead to "organisational conclusions about the military command".

    There has also been strong criticism of the frequent overloading of the helicopters, beyond the proper 85-passenger capacity.

    "The Mi-26 often flies to Khankala with 100-110 people on board, plus a huge amount of cargo, including cheap Ossetian vodka," writes Kommersant.

    Other commentators have pointed out that the Mi-26, a huge and slow-flying machine, nicknamed "the cow", is an ideal target for the rebels.

    The crash follows a surge in rebel action, including attacks late last week which killed nine servicemen and five civilians.

    The war in Chechnya has been going on for nearly three years, but the Russian Government maintains that only isolated groups of rebels are holding out against federal forces.

    The BBC's Nikolai Gorshkov
    "The helicopter was heavily overloaded"
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