Moscow (AFP) Dec 29, 2010
A giant Antonov cargo plane crashed during a training exercise in central Russia, leaving all 12 military pilots aboard the aircraft missing and presumed dead, officials said on Wednesday.
Rescue workers and investigators were battling thick snow as they combed the crash site -- a field hemmed in by forest -- for the pilots' bodies and black boxes of the An-22 military plane which disappeared from radar screens late Tuesday and went down after an explosion, officials said.
The cargo plane -- one of the world's largest -- with 12 pilots but no cargo on board, had been performing a training exercise on its way from Voronezh to Tver in central Russia when it came down, said a spokeswoman for military prosecutors of the Moscow military district.
The plane's scattered remains were found early Wednesday four kilometres from the village of Troitskoye in the Tula region, with the impact of the crash leaving a large, five-metre-deep crater in the ground, spokeswoman Natalya Zemskova told AFP.
"All those aboard died," the Moscow-based investigators said in a separate statement, adding local witnesses heard an explosion.
Zemskova said however that the pilots were presumed dead because officials were still looking for their bodies.
Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the defence ministry, confirmed that neither the bodies of the crew nor the jet's black boxes had been found as of 0800 GMT.
He added that bad weather at the scene was hampering search efforts. "It's a blizzard and snowing," he said in televised remarks.
Officials said it was too early to say what caused the crash but flights of all An-22 planes and Tu-95MC strategic bombers with a similar engine to the one from the crashed jet have been suspended until the cause of the crash becomes clear, Konashenkov told AFP.
"It's standard practice," he said.
Dating back to the Soviet era, Antonov An-22 is a military cargo turboprop plane and is among the world's largest aircraft.
Authorities have opened a criminal probe into the accident, Zemskova said.
Konstantin Makiyenko, deputy director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, an independent defence think-tank, estimated that Russia currently has fewer than 10 An-22 planes.
He cautioned against calls to decommission all An-22 planes as the remaining aircraft, albeit old, were nowhere near the end of their life.
Accidents involving military aircraft are relatively common in Russia.
Last year, another Russian military plane, a Tupolev Tu-142, crashed into the sea during a training exercise in Russia's Far East, leaving all 11 crew members missing and presumed dead.
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