Russian officials defended the flight crew of a Russian TU-154 airliner Tuesday, saying it is premature to tell the cause of its collision with a cargo plane over Germany that killed 71 people.
The Russian passenger plane taking 52 holiday-bound children and 17 others collided with a cargo plane operated by international courier company DHL on Monday above the German-Swissborder. All 69 people on board the passenger plane and two pilots of the Boeing 757 cargo plane were feared killed.
Alexander Neradko, First Deputy Transport Minister and head of the State Civil Aviation Service, told Russian television that "human factor" was the most likely cause for the catastrophe.
"The human factor is made up of several different elements, notjust originating in the sky but also on the ground," he said.
Neradko's comments were made in response to Swiss and German officials who said that the Russian aircraft had repeatedly ignored warnings from ground controllers to reduce its altitude toavoid a crash.
He said the crew was made up of pilots of the very first order,who were hugely experienced in international flights. "There are as yet no grounds for saying what caused the accident."
The minister also said two Russian experts groups would leave for Germany soon to help investigate the accident and provide helpto victims.
Nikolai Odegov, director of the Bashkirian Airlines which owns the doomed plane, said air traffic controllers were to be blame for the crash.
"There were no reasons to say that the pilots did not handle the plane properly...My theory is that it is the fault of the air traffic controllers. They put the plane on the same way," he said at a new conference.
Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who is on a visit to Paris, declined to make any categorical comments on the cause of the disaster, saying conclusion could be made only after "all circumstances are cleared out and the flight recorders are found and read."
"The most terrible thing is that the air crash took the lives of children. This loss cannot be compensated. But I'm sure, with the help of our colleagues in Europe, we will establish the cause of the catastrophe," he was quoted by the Interfax news agency.
The children, eight under age 12 and 44 teenagers under 16, were heading from Russia's Bashkortostan region to a festival in Barcelona in Spain organized by U.N. science, education and culture body UNESCO. The parents of over half of the children workfor the Bashkir government, the Interfax quoted local officials assaying.
Murtaza Rakhimov, President of the Bashkortostan region, declared a three-day period of mourning throughout his republic.
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had sent a message ofsympathy to relatives and friends of the dead. The president also spoke by phone with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder Tuesday evening, calling for joint investigation of the tragedy.
The Tu-154 was built in 1995. Itar-tass news agency quoted a Moscow flight safety official as saying that it was equipped with the newest on-board collision prevention and altitude control system.