By Andrew Roth
The Washington Post
MOSCOW — Russia on Monday played down the likelihood that terrorism was behind the crash of a Soviet-era military jet that killed 92 people on Christmas Day, a disaster that prompted a national day of mourning and added to concerns that Russia’s role in the war in Syria is increasingly making it a target.
Russia’s Federal Security Service told the Interfax news service that there is no evidence yet “indicating the possibility of a terrorist attack or an act of sabotage on board” the Tu-154 jet, which lost contact with air traffic controllers just one minute after taking off from the southern Russian city of Sochi on Sunday.
The crash site was pinpointed Monday about a mile off the Black Sea coast, where divers found the fuselage and other parts of the plane strewn over a distance of about 500 yards, Russia’s Defense Ministry said. The plane initially took off from a heavily guarded military airfield in Moscow, officials said, and was under close watch during refueling in Sochi, making it unlikely someone placed a bomb on board.
Divers on Monday discovered the bodies of at least 11 people who were aboard the flight; others may have been swept out to sea with the current.
Russian investigators said they were considering a number of technical and other accidental causes for the crash, including “foreign objects getting into the engine, low-quality fuel” and pilot or mechanical error.
The crash of the Tu-154 jet, which was carrying military officers, musicians, journalists and others to Syria, was the single deadliest incident tied to Russia’s intervention there since a passenger jet exploded over the Sinai Peninsula in November 2015, killing all 224 people aboard.
An Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for that attack and linked it to Russia’s intervention in Syria. Russian authorities later said an explosive device had been smuggled on board.
In televised comments, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for a full investigation and declared Monday a national day of mourning for the crew and passengers of the flight.
Among the dead were more than 60 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, also known as the Red Army Choir, which had recently gained widespread recognition for its rendition of the “James Bond” theme song “Skyfall.” The group was traveling to Syria to hold a concert for Russian soldiers and airmen deployed there.