Jet probably struck by lightning

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UKRAINE: A Russian airliner that crashed in eastern Ukraine yesterday killing all 170 passengers and crew on board was probably struck by lightning as it encountered heavy turbulence, a preliminary investigation suggested last night.

The Tu-154 was flying from the Black Sea resort of Anapa to St Petersburg when it went down in open countryside about 50km (31 miles) north of Donetsk city. More than a quarter of the aircraft's passengers were children.

Russia's transport ministry said bad weather had probably caused the crash on flight 612. "A report about heavy turbulence came at 15.37 Moscow time from the aircraft, which was at an altitude of 11,000 metres, and then the plane disappeared from radar screens," a spokesman said.

St Petersburg-based Pulkovo airlines said the crew issued a second distress signal from a lower altitude but air traffic controllers could not make out the sentence that followed.

Aviation experts said the aircraft could survive a lightning strike, but flight instruments may have been knocked out, disorienting the pilot. The crash was the third major aviation tragedy in Russia this year. Witnesses said the plane plunged into the ground intact, suggesting there had not been an explosion on board. A large bang was heard in the nearby village of Sukha Balka followed by a series of smaller bangs.

At least 45 children were among the dead, said the airline. Most passengers were thought to be Russian holidaymakers from St Petersburg returning home, although foreigners, including at least one Dutch citizen, were reportedly among the dead.

Andrei Tyutyunikov, a reporter with local newspaper Donetskiye Novosti, who arrived at the scene shortly after the crash, said the aircraft had been destroyed. He said: "It's just in pieces. I can see one large chunk with the letters on it. Emergency officials are dragging fragments of bodies from the wreckage. There's no one left alive."

TV pictures showed firefighters dousing blackened hillside covered in debris. Thirty bodies were recovered by late afternoon. Rescuers prepared to comb the wreckage through the night but did not expect to find survivors.

Irina Andrianova, a spokeswoman for the Russian emergency situations ministry, said a preliminary investigation indicated a lightning strike had caused the disaster.

A team of medics and psychologists was dispatched to Pulkovo airport in St Petersburg to help distraught relatives waiting for the flight. The Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, cut short a holiday in Crimea to monitor the situation.

A 60-strong Russian emergency ministry team also flew from Rostov to help the rescue and clean-up effort. Relatives of the dead will be flown to the site today to identify bodies.

In July aSibir airlines Airbus A-310 crashed and burst into flames after veering off the runway in Irkutsk, killing 122 people. That accident was blamed on a malfunction in a thrust reverser. Two months earlier 113 people died when an Airbus A-320 belonging to Armenian airline Armavia crashed on its way from Yerevan to Sochi. The disaster was attributed to the pilot flying through bad weather.

The Tu-154 is known as the "flying cigar" because of its long fuselage and cramped cabin space. It is still one of the most commonly used planes in Russia.

"So far this crash is a mystery because the Tupolev is robust and every aircraft has a weather radar," said David Learmount of Flight International magazine. "The big question is: how the hell did the pilot get in the middle of a thunderstorm?"

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