Russian plane crashes, another said lost
A Russian airliner crashed and a second disappeared from radar about the same time Tuesday night after both planes took off from the same Moscow airport, raising fears that terrorism was involved.
There was no word on survivors among the 89 people believed to be aboard the planes, which left Moscow's Domodedovo airport 40 minutes apart, Russian news agencies reported.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an investigation by the nation's top intelligence agency, and security was tightened at airports across the country.
Authorities have expressed concern that separatist rebels in the breakaway republic of Chechnya could carry out attacks linked to this Sunday's presidential election there. Rebels have been blamed for a series of terror strikes that have claimed hundreds of lives.
Chechnya's previous president, the pro-Russian Akhmad Kadyrov, was killed by a bombing in May.
Witnesses reported seeing an explosion before the first plane crashed about 125 miles south of Moscow, and authorities were not ruling out terrorism, the agency said.
The Interfax news agency said emergency workers spotted a fire about 600 miles south of Moscow in the region where the second plane went missing.
Putin ordered the Federal Security Service to investigate, Russian news agencies reported. The service is the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.
A Tu-134 airliner with 43 people aboard crashed in the Tula region, 125 miles south of Moscow, at about 10:56 p.m. Tuesday, Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Marina Ryklina said. She said the plane was carrying 35 passengers and a crew of eight.
ITAR-Tass reported that the plane belonged to Volgograd-based airline Volga-Aviaexpress and was being piloted by the company's director. Rescuers found the jet's tail near the village of Buchalki, Interfax reported.
A Tu-154 with 46 people aboard lost contact with flight officials about three minutes later near Rostov-on-Don, about 600 miles south of Moscow, Ryklina said. The jet belonged to the Russian airline Sibir, which said the plane disappeared from radar screens at about 11 p.m. Tuesday, Interfax reported. There were 38 passengers and a crew of eight aboard.
The Interfax news agency later said emergency workers were headed to the region near the Ukrainian border to see if the fire was from a crash.
Earlier, ITAR-Tass reported that emergency officials said the second plane crashed.
Quoting an unnamed air traffic official in Moscow, ITAR-Tass said authorities were not ruling out terrorism. The agency also reported that witnesses said they saw an explosion before the Tula region crash.
The plane that crashed near Tula left Moscow at 10:15 p.m. and was headed to the southern city of Volgograd, while the plane that disappeared left at 9:35 p.m. for the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, where Putin was vacationing, ITAR-Tass and state-run Rossiya television reported.
When Russia's U.N. Ambassador Andrey Denisov was told of the initial report of two near-simultaneous crashes, he said, "Now we have to see if there's terrorism."
In Washington, a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity Tuesday evening, said it was the understanding of American officials that the two Russian planes disappeared within four minutes of each other, which "in and of itself is suspicious."
Separately, a U.S. counterterrorism official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was no threat reporting to indicate a threat to U.S. aircraft or to U.S. aircraft in Russia.
The U.S. Homeland Security Department was monitoring the situation but was not implementing any additional security measures in the United States, spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.