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Fears that terrorists have struck Russia shortly before a major election overshadow the tragic crash last night of two airliners, both after taking off from the same Moscow airport.
The two planes left Moscow’s Domodedovo airport 40 minutes apart, carrying a total of 89 people.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an investigation of the twin plane losses, security was tightened at airports nationwide.
According to Russia’s ITAR-Tass news agency, a Tu-134 airliner with 43 people aboard crashed in the Tula region 125 miles south of Moscow. Witnesses saw an explosion on board that plane, Interfax news agency quoted local authorities as saying.
A second aircraft, a Tu-154 with 46 people aboard disappeared from radar at approximately the same time, this time near Rostov-on-Don, about 600 miles south of Moscow, according to ITAR-Tass.
CNN reported that emergency officials claimed the second plane crashed about three minutes after the first one. The wreckage of the Tu-154 was found in Gluboky, a village north of Rostov-on-Don.
ITAR-Tass news agency quoted a Moscow air controllers’ source as saying that there had been no reports of any problems from the crew of the Tu-134 before it crashed near Tula.
NBC News quoted an unnamed U.S. official in Washington, D.C., as saying American officials believed the two Russian planes disappearing within four minutes of each other “in and of itself is suspicious.”
Officials noted one of the jets sent a distress signal that possibly indicated a hijacking. Russia’s main intelligence agency said so far it had found no evidence of terrorism, but a Russian aviation expert quoted by the Interfax news agency said the crash of two planes at the same time raises suspicions.
While America’s Homeland Security Department is monitoring the situation, it is not implementing any additional security measures in the U.S., spokesman Brian Roehrkasse told reporters.
As with America’s 9-11 attacks – when the second plane hitting the World Trade Center confirmed that it was a terror attack and not an accident – Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Andrey Denisov responded to his nation’s two near-simultaneous crashes by saying, “Now we have to see if there’s terrorism.”
The dual plane losses occur just days before this Sunday’s presidential election in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, suggesting the possibility that terrorists could be trying to influence the election like al-Qaida turned Spain’s voters earlier this summer.
Indeed, pro-Russian President Akhmad Kadyrov was killed by a bombing in May.
And NBC’s Moscow bureau chief Tom Bonifield reports that “the war in Chechnya has raised, off and on since 1994, a real problem for Russia. … We’ve seen repeated attacks – including here in Moscow – that have been caused by Chechen rebels.”
He added, Russian transportation officials “are fairly rigorous about protecting their aviation industry.”
Nevertheless, many explosions in recent years, blamed primarily on Chechen separatist rebels, have killed hundreds of people, according to NBC.
The aircraft accidents occurred shortly after a bomb exploded at a Moscow bus stop, injuring four. And the Moscow Times reported a fire broke out yesterday morning on a bus in the eastern Moscow, killing all five passengers and seriously injuring the driver.