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Russia air crash relatives identify bodies

By Staff
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SOCHI, Russia, May 4 (Reuters) Relatives today began the grim task of identifying bodies of some of the 113 passengers and crew killed when their Armenian airliner crashed into the Black Sea off Russia's coast.

In Sochi, the Russian holiday resort near where the Airbus A-320 crashed, about 60 men waited outside the morgue. They were called in one at a time and escorted to a room where the bodies had been laid out for identification.

Many of the corpses recovered from the water are in pieces because of the force of the impact.

There were at least five children on the plane. Most of the passengers were Armenian. There were also 26 Russian passport holders on board.

About 36 hours after the jet vanished from radar screens as it flew to Sochi from Armenia, divers and rescue workers in boats had pulled 49 bodies from the water, officials said. Twenty of the dead had been identified.

The first bodies will be flown home to Armenia later on Thursday for burial, Armenian government minister Hovik Abrahamiyan said in Yerevan, the Armenian capital.

The search was going on for more bodies and the aircraft's ''black box'' flight recorder which should help investigators piece together the jet's last moments.

Crash investigators had picked up a radio tracking signal from one of the black boxes lying on the seabed, said Viktor Beltsov, a spokesman for Russia's Emergencies Ministry.

Investigators and officials from Armavia, the airline operating the plane, said they believed torrential rain and poor visibility were factors in the crash. Russian prosecutors have ruled out terrorism.

Armavia's managers said the aircraft had initially turned back to Yerevan because weather conditions in Sochi made it impossible to land.

The crew changed course again and tried to land at Sochi a second time when flight controllers told them the weather had cleared slightly, the airline said.

FINAL MINUTES There was a haunting glimpse into the flight's final minutes today when the Rossiya television station broadcast what it said was a taped radio exchange between the crew and air traffic controllers in neighbouring Georgia.

''We are returning to Yerevan,'' a crew member can be heard saying over a crackly radio link.

''Right now or later?'' the controller says.

''Now,'' the crew member replied.

Local authorities had turned Sochi's Moskva hotel into a makeshift reception centre for people who arrived in the town hoping to recover their relatives' bodies.

''The pathologists have started work. Photographs showing body parts have been taken to the Moskva hotel,'' local government official Natalya Fomenko told NTV television.

''People can look at them and if there are grounds for doing so they can then be escorted to the morgue.'' A special submersible was despatched to Sochi to help retrieve some of the debris which, rescuers say, has sunk to the seabed about 500 metres down.

Russian television showed a rescuer picking up a single, white training shoe from the water and adding it to a pile of clothes and shredded suitcases on the deck of his dinghy.

REUTERS SY PM1806

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