By Emil Danielyan and Astghik Bedevian
President Robert Kocharian rushed his influential defense minister to southern Russia early Wednesday to investigate the worst plane crash in Armenia’s history and declared a two-day period of national mourning for its more than one hundred victims.
Kocharian held an emergency meeting with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and senior Armenian officials immediately after news of the deadly accident reached Yerevan. A statement by his press service said Sarkisian was instructed to clarify its “causes and circumstances on the spot.” The Armenian Prosecutor-General’s Office has opened a criminal case in connection with the crash, it added.
Other sources told RFE/RL that the Armenian defense chief was already in Sochi early in the afternoon. He was due to be joined there by Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin. The two men co-chair the Russian-Armenian inter-governmental commission on economic cooperation.
Kocharian was also contacted by phone by Russian President Vladimir Putin early in the morning. A statement released by the Kremlin said Putin briefed him on the “large-scale search and rescue operation conducted by the Russian side in the disaster area and planned further actions.” “Robert Kocharian expressed gratitude for the telephone call and the detailed information,” the statement said. “Armenian specialists will join in the operation very soon.”
Putin and Kocharian were also cited as describing the plane crash as a “common tragedy of the Armenian and Russian peoples.” Armenia will officially mourn its victims on Friday and Saturday. Friday will also be a day of national mourning in Russia.
At least twenty-six of the 113 passengers and crew on board the Airbus A-320 of then Armenian national airline Armavia, which crashed into the Black Sea off the Russian coast in stormy weather, were reportedly Russian citizens. Most of them were apparently of Armenian descent.
Virtually all of the other victims are believed to be Armenian nationals. It emerged that among them were Vyacheslav Yaralov, deputy director of Armavia and the former head of Armenia’s civil aviation authority, Husik Harutiunian, a business executive who used to head the Armenian branch of the Soviet KGB in the late 1980s, as well as the son of Karlos Petrosian, former head of the National Security Service, the Armenian successor to KGB.
Kocharian formed a separated government commission tasked with repatriating the bodies of the Armenian victims and organizing their funeral in Armenia. The commission will be headed by Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian.
The Armenian parliament, meanwhile, observed a minute of silence in memory of the dead before adjourning its regular session on Wednesday. Deputies also decided to form a multi-party ad hoc group that will take part in the Russian-Armenian probe of the crash.
It also emerged that one of the deputies, Ashot Aghababian, also checked in for the fatal Yerevan-Sochi flight but decided not to board the Armavia jet at the last-minute request of Galust Sahakian, his brother-in-law and one of the leaders of the parliament majority. Sahakian said he asked Aghababian to stay in Yerevan and take part in a parliament vote that had been scheduled for Wednesday.