PERM, Russia (AFP) — An Aeroflot Boeing-737 jet crashed Sunday on the outskirts of Perm in Russia's Ural mountains killing all 88 passengers and crew on board, the airline said.
At least 20 foreigners and seven children were on the plane which witnesses said burst into flames as it prepared to land on a flight from Moscow. The wreckage cut off a stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway.
"It was burning while still in the sky and it looked like a falling comet," one female witness told Russia's Vesti-24 television.
Aeroflot said controllers lost radio contact with the plane shortly after 5:20 am (2320 GMT Saturday), moments before it came down just a few hundred metres (yards) from a main residential area.
Aeroflot confirmed there were no survivors and said the dead included nine people from Azerbaijan, five from Ukraine and one each from France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Switzerland, and Turkey.
One passenger was also said to be American but US officials were reportedly checking that information.
Among the victims was General Gennady Troshev, a former top commander of Russia's war in Chechnya and advisor to ex-president Vladimir Putin, Interfax news agency reported, citing Russia's transport ministry.
Aeroflot chief executive Valery Okulov refused to answer whether it could have been a terrorist attack and said that was a matter for the investigating commission. "We should wait for the official results," he said.
"As the plane was coming in for landing, it lost communication at the height of 1,100 metres and air controllers lost its blip," an Aeroflot statement said.
"The airplane was found within Perm's city limits completely destroyed and on fire," it added.
One witness described seeing the plane pass over his house before watching in horror as it exploded and sent massive chunks of burning wreckage flying to the ground.
"The plane was flying over our building, falling, and it hit the ground about 200 metres (650 feet) away and broke up," a local resident, who only gave his name as Maxim, told AFP.
"It blew up in the air, the pieces fell on the ground. The main part containing the passengers fell in a dacha (country house) area with gardens. It didn't hit the main residential area."
Vesti-24 showed smoking hot metal strewn across a wooded area and investigators combing through the dark with flashlights. Later pictures showed clothes and other possessions scattered far and wide.
The cause of the accident was not immediately clear, though a source quoted by RIA Novosti suggested that an engine failure could have sparked flames on board and led to the crash.
Both black box flight recorders were found in the wreckage, Interfax news agency reported, citing investigators.
Aeroflot spokesman Lev Koshlyakov told journalists the plane had been given "a full technical inspection" early this year and was judged to be in a "proper condition."
The airline set up a crisis centre at Moscow's Sheremetyevo-1 airport and in Perm for relatives of the victims and pledged compensation of up to two million rubles (some 80,000 dollars or 55,000 euros) for each person lost.
It was the worst air disaster involving a Russian airliner since a Tupolev-154 flying to Saint Petersburg went down near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk in August 2006 killing all 170 passengers on board.
President Dmitry Medvedev offered his condolences to the grieving families and Russia's Transport Minister Igor Levitin was dispatched to Perm to personally head the probe into what happened.
Monday was declared a day of mourning in Prem.
Plane wreckage on the tracks led to the closure of a stretch of the Trans-Siberian railway between Perm and Yekaterinburg, police said.
The plane had been leased by Aeroflot from a Dublin-based company Pinewatch Limited in July until March 2013, the airline said. It was not clear how old it was.
The crash will doubtless raise renewed concerns about the safety of air travel in Russia where experts have pointed to major faults in the training of crews as well as Russia's ageing fleet of passenger jets.
An air safety commission announced in January that the average age of the country's international airliners was 18 years, and its regional jets 30 years.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »