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Russia’s Challenge: Michael Wines

October 4, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Sibir Airlines Flight 1812, a Tupolev 154 like this one, departed Tel Aviv shortly after 9:00 A.M. local time. The chartered Russian airliner was en route to the Siberian town of Novosibirsk when it exploded and plunged into the Black Sea, near the Russian border with Georgia. There were conflicting reports whether the plane stopped in Bulgaria. An Armenian pilot flying directly below the plane said he saw it explode in midair. Grieving families in both countries waited for news at the airports. At least 76 people were onboard the chartered airliner. A Russian official said most of the 64 passengers were Israeli citizens. There were 12 Russian crewmembers. Immediately after the crash, Israel suspended takeoffs of foreign flights from Ben Gurion, its main airport. Israel’s airport security is known to be among the world’s toughest. An Israeli spokesman talked to reporters this morning.

AVI PAZNER: We do not know whether it is an accident. We do not know whether it is terror related. We will investigate together with international authorities and the Russian authorities. What we know, that onboard there were many Israeli citizens who were visiting their families in Novosibirsk, and we hope that the rescue efforts, which are under way right now, will be successful.

RAY SUAREZ: The suspension was lifted six hours later. In world capitals, there was confusion about what caused the explosion. Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, spoke this morning.

VLADIMIR PUTIN (Translated): We should gather together all our forces. Without that, we won’t be able to find a solution. Unfortunately we suffered a tragic event today with the loss of a civil plane. We aren’t excluding the possibility that it was a terrorist attack.

RAY SUAREZ: In Washington, Defense Department officials told journalists privately the aircraft may have been accidentally hit by a surface- to-air missile fired during a Ukrainian military exercises held off the Crimean Coast. Ukrainian military officials denied that, saying:

OFFICIAL (Translated): The Ukraine military had nothing to do with the plane crash, but there will be an investigation.

RAY SUAREZ: Another theory emerged during the day. It’s possible the plane had mechanical problems. The crash was the 21st involving a TU-154 since it entered service in the early 70s. Emergency crews at the crash site have recovered at least ten bodies and parts of the plane, but no black box.

RAY SUAREZ: Joining me now by phone: Michael Wines, chief Moscow correspondent for the “New York Times.” Just a few moments ago, we heard President Putin talking about the possibility of terrorism, Michael. Has the Russian government stuck with that version of the story?

MICHAEL WINES: Well, so far, yes. Of course, it is now well past midnight here, but the last the government was saying was that they did indeed think that the best bet was that this was a terrorist accident, and even President Putin had more or less ruled out the prospect that this was a misfired missile, although he also stressed that he was relying on the Ukrainians for that information and that he couldn’t personally vouch for it.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, sources in the United States have paid a lot of attention to those military exercises. Could you describe them? Were they in the same part of the Black Sea where the jet would have passed?

MICHAEL WINES: Well, we don’t have, even now, exact coordinates of where this jet went down. But just looking at the map, it appears that the location of the downed jet, which was 120 miles or so off the Russian coast, is perhaps 100 miles or so from where the Ukrainians were saying that the military exercise was, which was on the eastern part of the Crimean Peninsula. So there is a bit of a distance there, but the exact range of the exercises at this moment isn’t known.

RAY SUAREZ: Who would be interested in committing a terrorist attack against a Russian-owned jet heading for a Russian city?

MICHAEL WINES: Well, it’s an interesting question. I can think of two groups offhand. Russia has recently quite solidly joined the western side of this international coalition against terrorism, and it’s not a leap of speculation to think that someone might want to down a Russian plane to make a point to the Russians that they will pay a price, too, for siding with the United States. On the other hand, this is a plane that was filled almost exclusively with Jewish passengers, recent émigrés from Russia who had moved to Israel who were returning to Novosibirsk to celebrate a Jewish holiday. So it’s also equally easy to speculate, if it was in fact a terrorist act, that perhaps these were people who were downed as some sort of retaliation in the dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

RAY SUAREZ: Was the carrier a well-established company, one with a record that stands up to some scrutiny?

MICHAEL WINES: Siberia Airlines is a very fast-growing air carrier in Russia with, as far as I know, a good safety reputation. They are now the second largest carrier in Russia next to Aeroflot itself. And the Tupolev 154 that they fly is just a staple of the Russian fleet, the domestic air fleet. It’s not the safest plane on earth. In fact, there was a major crash in July that killed 145 Russians. But, on the other hand, it’s not the most dangerous plane on earth, either. It’s got a rather mediocre record. The company says that this plane, which was ten years old, was very well maintained and had a major overhaul just two years ago. They say there’s no reason to suspect mechanical problems.

RAY SUAREZ: And will we be able to, given the state of play in Russia and their ability to investigate such things, be able to nail down the true cause of this incident?

MICHAEL WINES: Well, I think that there are two avenues… Two easily pursued avenues to take. One, of course, if you’re checking for a terrorist act, is to look at the passenger manifest and to see who was on the plane, and I’m sure that the Russians and the Israelis are already doing that. 51 of these passengers were celebrating a Jewish holiday. The remaining 13, at this point, I guess we don’t know what they were doing. The other avenue, of course, is to look at the Ukrainian military, which has adamantly denied that it was one of their missiles that was at fault, but the Americans in the Pentagon, who presumably have their own intelligence data and perhaps satellite photos and other indications, seem to be almost as adamant that it, in fact, was a missile that went tragically awry.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Wines, joining us from Moscow. Good to talk to you.