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Tuesday, December 16, 1997 Published at 14:58 GMT

World: Analysis

Soviet era aircraft under spotlight as Tajiks mourn

The Central Asian republic of Tajikistan has declared Wednesday a day of national mourning after one of their airliners crashed near Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. All but one of the 86 people on board were killed in the disaster. As the BBC's Malcolm Haslett points out, the disaster is a severe blow for a small republic only just emerging from years of bitter civil strife.

It is too early to draw conclusions about the causes of the Sharjah accident but coming as it does so soon after the disaster in Irkutsk, Siberia it will raise new questions about air safety in the former Soviet republics.

Figures show air safety has improved markedly this year across the CIS [Commonwealth of Independent States] countries.

The official Interstate Aviation Committee reported in November that less than 100 had died in crashes within the CIS this year, compared to almost 300 for the whole of last year.

The Irkutsk crash changed the picture somewhat but the death toll this year will almost certainly be the lowest since 1990.

Tajik officials insist the ill-fated airliner, belonging to the Khodzhend branch of the state-owned Tajik national airlines, was well maintained and piloted by one of the company's most experienced pilots.

Eyewitnesses have reported that the plane exploded in the air as it approached Sharjah airport, which means sabotage, at this stage, cannot be ruled out.

But the plane was a Tupolev TU-154, a type which has been the "work horse" of Soviet and post-Soviet airlines since the 1970s.

Reports on some recent accidents in the former Soviet Union have underlined the age of the plane and out-of-date navigation equipment as major factors in the accidents.

Another cause of accidents noted in recent times has been errors made by pilots or ground control.

Both these causes were cited in the case of the terrible accident near Delhi in November 1996 involving a Kazakh Ilyushin-76 and a Saudi Arabian Boeing 747.

Almost 350 people died in that crash.

Saudi and Indian investigators put the blame on the Kazakh pilot who, they said, was flying lower than he had been told to.

A Kazakh investigation claimed Delhi ground control were using an out-of-date air traffic control system.

What the case underlined was that sometimes there can be misunderstandings between pilots and ground control, especially when neither is speaking their own language. The normal language for communication is English.

Whatever the causes of this accident, it will be of no consolation to the grieving relatives, or to Tajik leaders who are striving to lift the spirits of a nation torn by civil war since independence six years ago.

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