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Homicide probe into mid-air crash

Crash scene
Swiss controllers and Russian officials have clashed on the cause of the crash  

MOSCOW, Russia -- Judicial authorities in Switzerland have opened a possible manslaughter inquiry following the mid-air collision between a Russian airliner and a DHL cargo jet earlier this week which killed 71 people.

CNN's Stephanie Halasz said the investigation into possible negligent homicide centred on the Swiss air traffic controllers on duty at the time of the crash.

The public prosecutor in Buehlach, Zurich, where the air traffic control centre run by Skyguide is located, said he would open an inquiry into the incident to determine if there was any basis to file negligence charges.

"The subject of the probe... is carefully investigating the exact chain of events during the time Skyguide was tracking these two aircraft from Zurich airport, and clarifying open questions on whether Skyguide staff made errors for which they could be held criminally liable," Buehlach district attorney Christoph Naef said in a statement.

Although the accident happened over southern Germany, the aircraft were technically in Swiss airspace under the guidance of Skyguide.

Police and rescue workers search the wreckage. CNN's Stephanie Halasz reports (July 4)

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Investigators try to determine why two planes with anti-collision devices hit each other. CNN's Alessio Vinci reports (July 2)

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Many victims were children from Bashkortostan going to Spain for a holiday. CNN's Jill Dougherty reports (July 3)

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Skyguide has given at times conflicting accounts of its role in the disaster but insisted its staff did nothing wrong.

German aviation officials told a news conference on Thursday that the voice and data recorders from two jets had been opened but are heavily damaged because of the height from which they fell -- 11,000 metres (35,000 feet).

Technicians from Germany's Federal Bureau for Air Accident Investigations (BFU) have not yet listened to the tapes. They said attempts were being made to piece damaged portions of the tapes together.

Investigators said control centre data indicate the Russian plane was told to begin descending 50 seconds before the accident but did not do so until 30 seconds before the crash.

They said automated signals from the cargo jet showed that 14 seconds before the crash, the DHL plane also began to decrease in altitude.

Two questions investigators said they will try to answer is why the Russian jet did not begin to drop in altitude until 30 seconds before the crash, which was too little time to have avoided the accident, and why the U.S.-owned cargo jet also dropped in altitude when it should have ascended.

Russian media reported on Thursday that the pilots of the Russian airline warned Swiss air traffic controllers of the coming calamity 90 seconds before the crash, and asked permission to change course. Skyguide made no immediate comment.

The latest moves came as distraught Russian relatives of the victims -- many of them children en route for a Spanish holiday -- journeyed to the crash scene. (Families hold crash memorial)

The Bashkirian Airlines jet and a Boeing 757 flown by DHL International delivery service collided just before midnight on Monday. At least 45 Russian children were among the victims.

Russian officials and Skyguide have repeatedly clashed angrily and publicly over the possible cause of the crash.

Initially the Swiss were quick to point the finger of blame at the Russian pilots who they said had ignored three warnings over two minutes to descend to avoid a collision.

Russian sources blamed air traffic controllers, saying there were just two warnings and they had come too late.

On Wednesday it emerged that an automatic system alerting Swiss air traffic controllers if aircraft are on a collision course was switched off for maintenance at the time of the tragedy, at a time of low traffic around midnight local time. Only one controller was on duty, with a second taking a break.

A report last week by Swiss aviation safety officials found the controllers' radar did not fully meet standards laid down by Eurocontrol, the European agency in charge of tracking aircraft in flight.

One of the report's recommendations was that controllers' screens should update the location of aircraft every eight seconds rather than every 12, as is now the case in Switzerland.

Skyguide told Reuters that such a change was not crucial and that they had already implemented many recommendations made by Germany's Federal Bureau for Air Accident Investigations (BFU).

"We have long-term programmes that optimise the system. This is completely under control," a spokesman said.

BFU head Jean Overney told Swiss Television on Wednesday night that the shortcomings in the report "were severe enough that we told them to improve it so that the reduced vertical separation minimums that have been introduced can be implemented with sufficient safety."

The new rules that took effect this year in Europe reduced by half the vertical distance that aircraft must maintain from each other to 1,000 feet. (Full story)

The cause of the crash is being investigated by officials from Germany, Russia, and the United States.


• SkyGuide
• Eurocontrol

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