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Armenian jet crashes off Russia, 113 presumed dead

By Staff
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MOSCOW, May 3 (Reuters) - An Armenian airliner crashed into the Black Sea off the Russian coast in heavy rain today, and all 113 passengers and crew on board were presumed killed, the Russian emergencies ministry said.

The plane, an Airbus A-320, was trying to land at Sochi, a popular seaside holiday spot in southern Russia, in bad weather when it slammed into the sea.

A spokesman for the Russian emergencies ministry said rescue workers had found baggage, life jackets, body parts, pieces of the shattered plane and a patch of oil floating on the surface of the sea at the crash site.

At least 16 bodies had been found by 0955 Hrs IST.

''According to preliminary information, all people on board are dead,'' a ministry spokeswoman said.

The plane had been making a short flight of about an hour from the Armenian capital Yerevan, and most of the passengers were Armenian nationals.

''The fragments were found six km (4 miles) from the shore near the airport of Adler. The search operation continues,'' ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov said.

Stunned relatives sat quietly waiting for news at Adler airport just outside Sochi, a resort town that became popular with Russians in the Soviet era.

Relatives also gathered at the airport in Yerevan. A list of passengers showed 26 had Russian passports and almost all the rest were Armenians.

''I was waiting for a call from my mother that she had arrived okay. But she did not phone, so I phoned myself and heard that this accident had happened,'' Khapet Tadevosyan, 32, told Reuters as he stood in the Yerevan airport building.

''She flew to Sochi to see her sisters, whom she hadn't seen for 15 years,'' he said.

Beltsov said the plane, operated by Armavia, had vanished from radar screens at 2.15 a.m. (2215 GMT Tuesday) near Sochi, which lies close to the Georgian border.

An Armavia official said the aircraft had initially been refused permission to land because of the heavy rain. But then the airport officials changed their mind and said the landing could go ahead.

''The plane was in an ideal technical condition, the crew was well qualified,'' said Andrei Aghajanov, deputy commercial director of the airline.

The plane had failed at its first attempt to land, and crashed into the sea at a very steep angle on its second approach. Its fuselage was lying on the seabed.

''The rescue workers are searching for the black boxes (flight recorders),'' Beltsov said. ''The main parts of the plane are located at around 400 metres depth.'' Armavia is the largest airline in the former Soviet Republic of Armenia and has three Airbus 320s of the kind that crashed.

The plane was carrying at least five children and eight crew members. Heavy rain and poor visibility were complicating the search, initially for survivors and later for clues to the cause of the crash.

REUTERS CH VV1140

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