By Armen Zakarian and Emil Danielyan
A Russian military plane was declared missing in northwestern Armenia on Wednesday after failing to return from what military officials said was a routine training flight.
The spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Seyran Shahsuvarian, told RFE/RL that the MiG-29 fighter jet belonging to the Russian military base in Armenia disappeared from the radar screens shortly after taking off from the Erebuni military airport in Yerevan early in the afternoon.
The official said a rescue team of the Armenian government’s Department on Emergency Situations was scouring the area around the town of Artik near the Turkish border.
The Itar-Tass news agency, citing Russian military sources in Armenia, reported that some local residents saw the MiG-29 going down. However, Armenian Emergency Department spokesman Nikolay Grigorian told RFE/RL that the rescuers failed to find its wreckage or other traces as of 8 p.m. local time. He said they only suspect that it crashed near Artik.
The whereabouts a Russian air force major who operated the plane were also unknown. The 39-year-old pilot was identified as Konstantin Kardash.
Russian military personnel were also reportedly involved in the search. A Russian Air Force spokesman, Aleksandr Dobryshevsky, was quoted by a Russian online newspaper as saying that they used army helicopters. He said the search was suspended after the fall of darkness and will resume the next morning. He also said that a special commission was formed in Moscow to investigate the suspected crash and will arrive in Yerevan late on Wednesday.
The missing jet, which is also capable of carrying up to four heavy bombs, was part of a unit of about two dozen MiG-29s deployed by Russia in Armenia in the late 1990s along with state-of-the-art S-300 surface-to-air missiles. They significantly boosted the country’s air-defense system which is integrated into the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty of several ex-Soviet states.
It was Russia’s first reported loss of military aircraft on Armenian territory since the Soviet collapse. Designed in the late 1970s, MiG-29 is one of the Russian military’s most powerful and high-tech warplanes. It has been exported abroad since 1986.
Incidentally, the plane went missing just two hours after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov flew back to Moscow from the nearby Zvartnots international airport, ending a two-day visit to Armenia. While in Yerevan, he announced, among other things, that the Kremlin intends to “rearm” its Armenia-based troops with more modern weapons and military hardware. But he would not say whether its air force unit will be boosted as well.