Moscow: A Russian military passenger plane carrying dozens of Red Army Choir singers, dancers and orchestra members plunged into the Black Sea minutes after it took off en route Sunday to a military base in Syria, killing all 92 people on board, Russia's Defense Ministry said.
As of Sunday evening, the cause of the crash had yet to be determined. Though some officials initially ruled out terrorism, Russia's special Investigative Committee, which opened a criminal inquiry, is considering all possibilities.
"Of course, the entire spectrum and almost any possible causes ... are being probed, but it is premature now to speak about this" as a terrorist act, Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov told reporters in Sochi, the Black Sea resort where the plane had made a refueling stop.
Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian military spokesman, told reporters that no one survived after the aging Soviet-era jet, which originally set out from Moscow, crashed shortly a refueling stop at the airport in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.
"The area of the crash site has been established," Konashenkov said. "No survivors have been spotted."
Russian news agencies reported that the plane had not sent a distress signal before disappearing from the radar and that no life rafts had been found by 3,000 people engaged in the recovery. Konashenkov described the captain of the jet as an experienced "first-class pilot."
In nationally televised comments, Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in St. Petersburg, declared Dec. 26 a national day of mourning and said the cause of the crash would be carefully investigated.
Earlier Sunday, Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense affairs committee in the upper house of Russian parliament, said in remarks carried by the state news agency RIA Novosti that he "totally excludes" terrorism as a possible cause. The news agency Interfax quoted a law enforcement source as saying that the aircraft took off from a heavily guarded military aerodrome outside Moscow.
"Infiltrating it in order to plant an explosive device on a plane does not appear possible. For its part, the airport in Sochi is a dual-purpose one and has increased security," Interfax quoted the source as saying. "Outsider infiltration by or a staff member bringing unauthorized items is ruled out."
The crash shook Russia less than a week after its ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, was fatally shot in public by a man shouting slogans about the war in Syria, an assassination captured live on video. Since then, Moscow and Ankara have made a show of their willingness to work together and, along with Iran, bring a settlement to the Syrian conflict. On Sunday, Putin received condolences from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Konashenkov said the jet, a Tupolev Tu-154 passenger liner built in 1983, last underwent repairs in December 2014 and had since been fully serviced. The remains of the passengers would be brought to Moscow for identification.
When she and fellow workers depart for a war zone, she said at the ceremony this month, "We never know whether we'll return, because war is hell on Earth."
The Defense Ministry published on its website a list of passengers, who included members of the famed Alexandrov ensemble, better known internationally as the Red Army Choir, heading to Syria to entertain Russian military personnel for the New Year holiday.
The choir, founded in 1928, has performed around the world and during the Cold War presented a human face for the Soviet Union with its repertoire of famed Russian folk songs. More recently, the ensemble, which numbered about 200 singers, dancers and musicians, added popular Western music to its performances. Among those who were on the plane that crashed Sunday, according to the list, was the ensemble's artistic director, Valery Khalilov.
Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets told the Tass news agency that Khalilov's death was an "irreplaceable loss" and that he had "made a huge contribution in contemporary culture above being the head of the orchestra and a composer."
U.S. Ambassador John Tefft joined other diplomats and international leaders in offering condolences.
The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built, three-engine airliner designed in the late 1960s that was the workhouse of the Soviet, and later Russian, fleet of intermediate range passenger jets. In recent years, Russian airlines have replaced the jets with modern aircraft - often manufactured by Boeing or Airbus - but the military and some other government agencies in Russia have continued to use them.
Russia's minister for industry and trade said Sunday that it was too early to make a decision about whether to take the jets out of service.
"There are a lot of aircraft in the world that are no longer being produced but are still being flown," said the official, Denis Manturov. "First we need to finish the investigation and understand the reasons (for the crash), and then make decisions."
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