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'No survivors' as Syria-bound Russian jet crashes

The jet was carrying 92 people, who included dozens of Red Army Choir members heading to celebrate the New Year with troops in Syria
General Eliseev, conductor of The Red Army Choir, smiles during the opening of the 49th International Festival of Carthage at the Roman Theatre of Carthage (AFP)
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A Russian military plane crashed Sunday in the Black Sea as it made its way to Syria with 92 people onboard, including more than 60 Red Army Choir members heading to celebrate the New Year with troops.

Local news agencies, citing the Russian defence ministry, said the Tu-154 plane had crashed shortly after take-off at 5:40 am local time (0240 GMT) from the southern city district of Adler, Sochi, where it had been refuelling.

Major-General Igor Konashenkov, a ministry spokesman, told reporters that nobody had survived.

"The area of the crash site has been established. No survivors have been spotted," he said. An unnamed ministry source told Russian news agencies no life rafts had been found, while another source told the Interfax agency that the plane had not sent an SOS signal.

In televised comments, President Vladimir Putin, speaking in St Petersburg, declared Monday a national day of mourning.

Defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov had told Russian news agencies earlier on Sunday that one body had been recovered six kilometres off the coast of the resort city of Sochi, as a frantic search operation was carried out.

"Fragments of the Tu-154 plane of the Russian defence ministry were found 1.5 kilometres from the Black Sea coast of the city of Sochi at a depth of 50 to 70 metres," the ministry said.

The plane had been on a routine flight to Russia's Hmeimim airbase in western Syria, which has been used to launch air strikes in Moscow's military campaign supporting its ally President Bashar al-Assad in the country's devastating civil war.

Among the plane's 84 passengers were Russian servicemen as well as 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, the army's official musical group also known as the Red Army Choir, and its conductor Valery Khalilov. They were headed to Syria to participate in New Year celebrations at the airbase.

There were also eight crew members on board, the ministry said.

Nine journalists were among the passengers, with state-run channels Pervy Kanal, NTV and Zvezda saying they each had three staff on board the flight.

A list of passengers published by the defence ministry also included Elizaveta Glinka, a doctor and charity worker who serves on the Kremlin human rights council.

Mikhail Fedotov, who heads the council, said Glinka was travelling to Syria to bring medication to a university hospital in the coastal city of Latakia near the airbase, agencies reported. 

Putin orders Probe 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told news agencies that President Vladimir Putin had been informed of the situation and was being kept updated on the search operation.

"It's too early to say anything," agencies quoted Peskov as saying, adding that Putin was in constant contact with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. 

"The president is waiting for the picture to be clear."

Konashenkov said that Deputy Defence Minister Pavel Popov had flown to Adler along with a team tasked with clarifying the circumstances surrounding the crash.

President Vladimir Putin ordered the government to probe the crash, the Kremlin said Sunday.

"Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to form and head a state commission to investigative the crash of the Tu-154 plane in Sochi," the Kremlin said in a statement, adding that Putin expressed his deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims of the crash. 

Meanwhile Syrian President Assad said he was "saddened by the crash" since the crew had wanted to celebrate his army's victory in Aleppo.

In a condolence message sent to Putin, Assad said the two countries were partners in the "fight to lay the foundations of stability, security and peace" in Syria.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and the US Embassy in Moscow also expressed condolences over the crash.

Investigations continue

Investigators are questioning the technical personnel responsible for preparing the plane for take-off, the committee said.

Tu-154 aircraft have been involved in a number of accidents in the past.

In April 2010, many high-ranking Polish officials, including then president Lech Kaczynski, were killed when a Tu-154 airliner went down in thick fog while approaching the Smolensk airport in western Russia.

Moscow has been conducting a bombing campaign in Syria in support of Assad since September 2015 and has taken steps to boost its presence in the country.

In October, Putin approved a law ratifying Moscow's deal with Damascus to deploy its forces in the country indefinitely, firming up Russia's long-term presence in Syria.

Russian warplanes have flown out of the Hmeimim base to conduct air strikes, and the base is also home to an S-400 air defence system.