MOSCOW (AP) — A Russian plane headed to an air base in Syria with 93 people aboard, including members of a well-known military choir, crashed into the Black Sea on Sunday minutes after taking off from the resort city of Sochi, Russia's Defense Ministry said.
There was no indication anyone survived the crash of the Tu-154, which belonged to the Defense Ministry and was taking the Alexandrov Ensemble to a holiday concert at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia. Crews recovered several bodies and ships, helicopters and drones were searching the area for more.
A total of 85 passengers and eight crew members were on the plane when it disappeared from radars two minutes after taking off in good weather. Emergency crews found fragments about 1.5 kilometers (less than one mile) from shore. There was no immediate word on the cause.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense affairs committee at the upper house of Russian parliament, said the crash could have been caused by a technical malfunction or a crew error, but he believes it could not have been terrorism because the plane was operated by the military.
"I totally exclude" the idea of an attack bringing down the plane, he said in remarks carried by state RIA Novosti news agency.
The passenger list released by the Defense Ministry included 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, among them its leader, Valery Khalilov. The ensemble is the official choir of the Russian military and also includes a band and a dance company.
Also on board was Yelizaveta Glinka, a Russian doctor who has won wide acclaim for her charity work. Her foundation said that Glinka was accompanying a shipment of medicines for a hospital in Syria.
Nine Russian journalists from three Russian television stations were also among the passengers.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was personally coordinating the rescue efforts, and President Vladimir Putin has received official reports on the incident.
The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built three-engine airliner designed in the late 1960s. More than 1,000 have been built, and they have been used extensively by carriers in Russia and worldwide.
In recent years, Russian airlines have replaced their Tu-154s with more modern planes, but the military and some other government agencies in Russia have continued to use them.
While noisy and fuel-guzzling by modern standards, the plane has been popular with crews that appreciate its maneuverability and ruggedness.
"It's an excellent plane, which has proven its reliability during decades of service," veteran pilot Oleg Smirnov said in televised remarks.
The plane that crashed was built in 1983, and underwent repairs in 2014, according to the Defense Ministry.
In April 2010, a Tu-154 carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others crashed while trying to land in bad weather at a sporadically used military airport in Smolensk in western Russia, killing everyone on board. Investigations by both Polish and Russian experts blamed pilot error in bad weather conditions, but Polish authorities have launched a new probe.