Missile Accident Suspected in Russian Crash

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Distraught relatives of passengers aboard a Russian TU-154

Our world has become a terrifying place, but sometimes the terror is purely accidental. Although a Russian chartered airliner that crashed in the Black Sea Thursday with 77 people aboard appears to have been brought down by an explosion, early reports of possible terrorist involvement may have been premature.

Although the cause of the crash remains to be determined, U.S. officials have reportedly suggested that the Tupolev TU-154 that went down off Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula may have been hit by a surface-to-air missile accidentally fired by a Ukrainian air defense battery during a military training exercise being held nearby.

Still, capping a 24-hour period during which a Greyhound bus crashed in Tennessee after a Croatian man slashed the driver's throat, and Indian commandos stormed a grounded airliner in New Delhi only to discover that its 'hijacking' was a hoax, it's hardly surprising that the Black Sea air disaster raised fears of terrorism. After all, the flight originated in Israel and most of its passengers were Israeli. The crew of a nearby Armenian Airlines plane reported seeing an explosion aboard the doomed plane, before it spun down into the sea. And Russian and Ukrainian media have been reporting for some time that ethnic Tatar villages in the Crimea had been giving shelter to rebel fighters from Chechnya, and that some Tatar Islamists had even volunteered to fight in Chechnya. Russia's President Vladimir Putin immediately expressed suspicions of terrorism.

The likelihood of terrorism seemed remote for several reasons. The flight originated in Israel, which meant its passengers would have been subjected to the most intense airport security in the world. And bringing the airliner down in mid-flight at 27,000 feet over the sea would be a tall order even for the Stinger missiles believed to have found their way into the hands of the Bin Laden network after the Afghan war. If the plane was indeed brought down by a missile, the odds favor at least a truck-mounted surface-to-air missile system beyond the known capability of even the best-armed terrorist groups.

Although the airliner in question has a poor safety record — some 28 of 923 Tupolev 154s produced since 1968 have crashed — Russian State Civil Aviation Service chief Alexander Neradko rules out any technical malfunction, saying this incident was unprecedented in its suddenness. In all previous crashes, the crew had been able to inform air controllers of trouble aboard. The Tupolev in question was built in 1991, and had undergone a total overhaul in 1999. Yevgeni Garov, its captain, is said to have been an experienced pilot.

Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles were reportedly being fired Thursday at unmanned aircraft in joint Russian-Ukrainian exercises at the Chauda missile range in Crimea. U.S. officials believe some of those missiles were capable of reaching the plane. Ukrainian Defense Minister Alexander Kuzmuk expressed satisfaction with the exercises Thursday, and defense department officials denied any involvement in the downing of the airliner. Asked later by the Russian media to comment on reports emanating from the U.S. of an accidental shoot-down, the Kremlin press-service answered rather ominously: "It is up to the Ukrainian official authorities to answer this question."

With reporting by Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow and Mark Thompson/Washington