By Karine Kalantarian
An Armenian commercial airliner carrying out a regular flight from Ukraine flew in the vicinity a Russian passenger jet which was reportedly accidentally shot down over the Black Sea on Thursday. The crew of the Antonov-24 plane saw the Russian airliner traveling from Tel Aviv to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk explode in midair and crash into the sea, officials in Yerevan told RFE/RL.
The deputy head of Armenia's Civil Aviation Authority, Ara Abgarian, said the Armenian pilots saw flames, an explosion and then fragments of the aircraft plunging towards the waters of the Black Sea. He said the pilots then informed Russian air traffic controllers about the crash, which is believed to have killed all 76 people, mostly Israeli citizens, on board the Sibir Airlines jet
AFP quoted a spokesman for the Russian Black Sea fleet as saying that the plane was accidentally shot down by a Ukrainian missile fired during military exercises in nearby Crimea. But the Ukrainian authorities denied the claim as Russia launched a probe into the
disaster. However, US media reported Friday, quoting Pentagon officials, that US spy satellite data showed that the Russian passenger aircraft was brought down by a Ukrainian missile launched during military exercises on Thursday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier said he suspects a terrorist attack. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma sent Putin his condolences, the presidential press service said.
The Armenian plane was flying on a regularly scheduled flight over the Black Sea from the Crimean city of Simferopol to Yerevan. Garik Hovannisian, a pilot of the Antonov-24, was quoted by The Associated Press as saying that his plane was at 6,300 meters (20,790 feet) above the Black Sea when the Tupolev-154 plane above him exploded.
"I saw the explosion on the plane, which was above me at an altitude of 11,000 meters (36,300 feet)," Hovannisian said. "The plane fell into the sea, and there was another explosion in the sea. After that I saw a big white spot on the sea and I had the impression that oil was burning."
A senior US military official suggested earlier in the day that the Tupolev-154 may have been downed by a surface-to-air missile fired during a military exercise in Ukraine. A Defense Department official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AP a land-based surface-to-air missile were fired from the Crimean region of Ukraine. Ukraine is the only country known to be conducting military exercises in the Black Sea area, the official said.
Colonel Vyacheslav Sedov of the Russian Defense Ministry said the ministry heard reports about a stray missile hitting the plane but wouldn't make any immediate comment.
Russian officials said the plane went down in pieces 180 kilometers (114 miles) off the Russian coastal city of Adler, located on the Georgian border. After the crash, Israel suspended takeoffs of foreign flights from its main airport, Ben Gurion International near Tel Aviv.