86 Dead In Russian Crash

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Eighty-six people were killed when a Russian military plane crashed into a mountain in western Georgia, Russian military officials said Thursday.

The Defense Ministry plane was en route from the Chkalovsky military airfield near Moscow and was attempting to land in harsh weather at a Russian military base near Georgia's Black Sea port of Batumi when it crashed on Wednesday night.

Rescuers reaching the crash site about 15 miles east of Batumi found pieces of the plane and scorched earth. Rescuers recovered the plane's black box Thursday, said Temuri Inaishvili, head of the Emergency Situations Ministry for the Adzharia region, where the plane crashed.

Kakha Beridze, an officer from the Georgian Ministry of Emergency Situations, arrived at the crash site about three hours after the crash with four other workers.

"Rain was falling, the plane was in pieces, and everything was on fire," Beridze said.

"There was no one to save, they were all dead."

Maj. Gen. Nikolai Zolotov, commander of Russian troops in the Trans-Caucasus region, said that the death toll in the crash was 86, including eight children.

The flight was carrying Russian servicemen and their families, as well as 11 crew members.

Alexander Drobyshevsky, an Air Force spokesman in Moscow, said that the plane crashed after it "violated the flight altitude." And the head of the Georgian civil aviation agency, Alexander Silagadze, said that the plane had veered off course on approach in "difficult weather conditions."

Another official from the Georgian agency, Zurab Chankotadze, said that the radar tracking the plane had shown that the pilot did not make the final turn necessary for approaching the landing strip.

"It is so far hard to say whether it was a mistake by the pilot or navigator, or whether the cause was difficult weather conditions," Chankotadze said.

An unidentified witness told Russia's ORT television that the plane had been in flames before hitting the mountain, called Tirina, or Wailing Mountain. After the crash, three explosions could be heard, witnesses said.

The Il-18 transport crashed 1,265 feet up the mountain, Georgian emergency officials said. Police and military cordoned off a large section of the mountain and prevented anyone other than emergency workers from approaching.

Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze arrived in Batumi around midday, after speaking by telephone with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. The two presidents said they would launch a joint investigation.

"There are various versions of the tragedy, and a tragic mistake is not ruled out. However, we'll find out what in fact happened in the course of the investigation," he said.

He said that Friday would be a day of mourning.

"What happened is a tragedy for both Russia and Georgia," he said.

Although Georgia became an independent country after the 1991 Soviet collapse, Russia stil maintains military bases there.

Russia is currently removing its troops and equipment from two bases in Georgia, and negotiating withdrawal from two more. Equipment from the bases is being shipped through Batumi.

The Il-18 planes, which can seat up to 100, first flew in 1957, and production ceased in 1970. The planes were used by the Russian military as submarine hunters and airborne command posts. The Soviet national airline Aeroflot used them as passenger planes.

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