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By Heghine Buniatian, Armen Dilanian in Prague and Ruzanna Khachatrian in Sochi
The crew of the Armenian airliner that crashed into the Black Sea on Wednesday were warned by Georgian ground controllers against landing in southern Russia due to stormy weather shortly before the disaster, officials in Tbilisi said on Thursday.

Officials at Georgia’s state air navigation service claimed that the Armenian pilots heeded the warning but then decided to proceed to the Russian resort city of Sochi after receiving clearance from Russian air traffic controllers.

“The plane remained in Georgia’s territory for about one hour and twenty minutes,” a spokeswoman for the service, Tea Godabadze, told RFE/RL from Tbilisi. “We informed the crew that the weather in Sochi is unfavorable and the crew decided to turn back. But twenty minutes later, when the plane reached [the western Georgian city of] Kutaisi, they told us, ‘Wait a minute, we are getting different information from [the southern Russian city] of Rostov.’”

“They were apparently told from Rostov that the weather is good,” she said.

“The commander of the aircrew bade us farewell at about three o’clock in the morning Yerevan time (2200 GMT) and even said, ‘Will talk to you in an hour,’” added Godabadze. “They were planning to return to Yerevan immediate after [arriving in Sochi]. We passed the plan on to the Rostov traffic controllers and it disappeared 15 minutes later.”

The Airbus A-320 belonging to Armenia’s national airline, Armavia, reportedly disappeared from radar screens at as it attempted a second landing at Adler
airport near Sochi. Armavia officials say traffic controllers initially told the plane to turn back because of torrential rain, but later changed their minds and gave it permission to land. They say the crew already began flying back to Yerevan when they were told that heavy rains cleared.

Armavia and Armenia’s civil aviation authorities believe that the weather conditions were the most likely cause of the crash that killed all 113 passengers and crew on board the A-320. The head of the Georgian traffic control service, Giorgi Karbelashvili, appeared to agree with this theory, saying that that Russian traffic controllers should have told the passenger jet to steer clear of the Sochi area right from the beginning.

“We are not saying who is guilty,” Karbelashvili told RFE/RL by phone. “We are only saying that we have very important information: 90 percent of the flight’s audio recordings which could be very helpful for identifying the causes of the accident.”

“If you listen to the audio, you will hear very unpleasant statements made by the Russian traffic controllers,” he added, refusing to elaborate.

The Georgian official also said that the Armenian authorities have already been informed about the existence the pilots’ recorded radio communication with Georgian and Russian air navigation services. Speaking to reporters in Sochi, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian confirmed the information and said an Armenian prosecutor has traveled to Tbilisi to obtain a copy of the audio.

Sarkisian was sent to the site of the crash by President Robert Kocharian on Wednesday to coordinate, together Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin, the continuing official investigation into the worst air disaster in Armenia’s history. The two officials co-chair a Russian-Armenian inter-governmental commission on economic cooperation.

Levitin said on Thursday that the investigators are already studying the audio of the Armenian pilots’ radio communication with Russian traffic controllers. Citing unnamed sources close to the inquiry, Armenian state television reported late Wednesday that the Russian airport official who has personally told them to land at Adler is giving “conflicting” testimony.

Both Sarkisian and Armavia owner Mikhail Baghdasarov ruled out on Thursday the possibility that the crash was caused by a malfunction of the A-320. The 150-seat aircraft had operated for Armavia since February 2004 and had accumulated more than 28,200 flying hours, in 14,000 flights. According to Baghdasarov, the plane had undergone full-scale servicing a year ago and was inspected by Belgian aviation engineers as recently as last month.

“If the initial order [for the plane] to return to Yerevan was carried out, the crash would not have taken place,” the Armavia boss told RFE/RL.

Baghdasarov also said that the families of the people killed in the crash will each receive approximately $20,000 in compensation. “I understand, of course, that you can’t make up for the loss with money,” he said.

(GI-Photolur photo: A Russian rescue worker stands at Sochi port dock next to the tail of the Armavia Airbus A320 plane.)
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