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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Snow drifts hamper hunt for clues over Russian plane crash

The crash area was enveloped in snow that was waist-high in places, making it difficult to get to with the first emergency workers forced to reach the wreckage on foot

Russian Emergency Situations Ministry members work at the crash site of the short-haul AN-148 airplane operated by Saratov Airlines in Moscow Region, Russia on February 12, 2018. Tatyana Makeyeva / Reuters
Russian Emergency Situations Ministry members work at the crash site of the short-haul AN-148 airplane operated by Saratov Airlines in Moscow Region, Russia on February 12, 2018. Tatyana Makeyeva / Reuters

Investigators scoured the scene on Monday after a passenger plane crashed near Moscow minutes after take-off, killing all 71 people on board, in one of Russia's worst plane crashes.

The site of the crash was enveloped in heavy snow with drifts that were waist-high in places, making it difficult to to get to, with emergency workers forced to reach the wreckage on foot, and later by snowmobiles.

Russia's Investigative Committee said it would consider explanations for the crash, including human error, technical failure and weather conditions, as the country has experienced record snowfall in recent weeks. It did not mention the possibility of terrorism.

The Antonov An-148 plane went down in the Ramensky district about 70 kilometres south-east of Moscow after taking off from Domodedovo airport in the Russian capital and disappearing off the radar at 2.28pm on Sunday.

"Sixty-five passengers and six crew members were on board, and all of them died," Russia's office of transport investigations said in a statement.

A Swiss citizen and a citizen of Azerbaijan were among the fatalities on a list released by the emergency services ministry. Three children also died including a five-year-old girl.

The flight was operated by the domestic Saratov Airlines and was headed for Orsk, a city in the Ural mountains.

About 100 investigators and criminologists were working at the scene, the Investigative Committee, which scrutinises major incidents, said on Monday.

The emergency services ministry said at least one of the two black boxes had been found.

A man looks at wreckage near the scene of a AN-148 plane crash in Stepanovskoye village, about 40 kilometres from the Domodedovo airport. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
A man looks at wreckage near the scene of a AN-148 plane crash in Stepanovskoye village, about 40 kilometres from the Domodedovo airport. Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

With wreckage of the plane spread over more than 30 hectares around the crash site, it will take a week to inspect the whole area, the emergency services ministry said.

More than 900 people using equipment including drones were involved in the search operation, which has been reclassified as looking for bodies rather than survivors, the ministry said.

"We plan to carry out the main stage of the search operation in seven days because the plane debris is scattered over a very large area," emergency services minister Vladimir Puchkov said at the scene, quoted by Interfax news agency.

"We walked about 600 to 700 metres across a field, with snow in places waist-deep," said Alexei Besedin, one of the first rescuers to reach the scene, quoted by the emergency services ministry.

"I felt a shock wave," said Maria, a resident of a village near the crash site. "The windows shook."

The transport investigations office said the plane disappeared from radar screens several minutes after take-off.

The Russian-made plane was reportedly seven years old and bought by Saratov Airlines from another Russian airline a year ago.

Saratov Airlines was founded in the 1930s and flies to 35 Russian cities. Its hub is Saratov Central Airport in southern Russia.

Russian president Vladimir Putin offered "his profound condolences to those who lost their relatives in the crash", his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Mr Putin — who is running for re-election in a March 18 poll — cancelled plans to travel to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Instead, the meeting was to take place in Moscow.

A picture made available on February 12, 2018 shows debris of the crashed Russian Saratov Airlines Antonov AN-148 passenger plane Alexander Oleinikov / EPA
A picture made available on February 12, 2018 shows debris of the crashed Russian Saratov Airlines Antonov AN-148 passenger plane Alexander Oleinikov / EPA

The governor of the Orenburg region, where the plane was heading, told media that "more than 60 people" on board the plane were from the region.

On Monday, the region declared a day of mourning with flags lowered and entertainment events cancelled.

With a population of 237,000 people, Orsk is the second biggest city in the Orenburg region, near Russia's border with Kazakhstan.

The country has suffered numerous plane crashes, with airlines often operating ageing aircraft in dangerous flying conditions.

A light aircraft crashed in November in Russia's far east, killing six people on board.

In December 2016, a military plane carrying Russia's acclaimed Red Army Choir crashed after taking off from Sochi, killing all 92 people on board.

The choir had been due to give a concert to Russian troops in Syria.

Pilot error was blamed for that crash.

In March 2016, all 62 passengers died when a FlyDubai jet crashed in bad weather during an aborted landing at Rostov-on-Don airport.