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Sources: Ukrainian missile downed Russian jet

A relative of a passenger of the downed airliner weeps Thursday as he arrives at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Knowledgeable U.S. officials said they have evidence the Russian airliner that crashed Thursday into the Black Sea was shot down by a Ukrainian surface-to-air missile fired during military exercises.

"We believe this was a tragic accident caused by a military exercise gone awry," said a US official.

The Sibir Airlines Tu-154 with 77 people aboard was en route from Israel to Siberia.

U.S. officials said the plane was downed by an SA-5 surface-to-air missile fired from a shore battery during the largest scale Ukrainian military exercises in some years.

The plane started its journey in Tel Aviv, Israel, bound for Novisibersk, Russia. Officials in Israel and Russia said they feared the crash could have been caused by terrorists. An Armenian pilot flying in the vicinity said he saw the plane explode in midair.

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The Sabir pilot gave air traffic controllers no indication of any problem, according to Russian civil aviation authorities. They said because of that they suspect that whatever happened, happened quickly.

Vasily Yurchuk, spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, said the plane went down 185 kilometers (115 miles) from the Russian coastal city of Adler, near the Georgian border, The Associated Press reported.

A Russian emergency ministry official told Reuters the plane went down 190 kilometers (118 miles) south of the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk.

Reports said the wreckage of the aircraft was found about 280 kilometers (174 miles) from the coast of the Black Sea.

Ukraine denies its missile involved

Kostyntun Khivlemko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Defense Ministry in Kiev, denied the plane was shot down by a Ukrainian missile. He said the missiles being used had a range of only10 kilometers, and the plane was more than 300 kilometers away.

Jane's Defence said an SA-5 has a range of 300 kilometers (186 miles)

Russian President Vladimir Putin also said he doubted whether Ukrainian missiles would have had the range to hit the plane.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials said they had "convincing" indications the plane was hit by a Ukrainian SA-5 missile.

Russia was observing the Ukrainian exercises, but not taking part, Putin said.

His administration was in communication with the Ukraine government, but it was premature to make any judgments, he added. A careful investigation would be needed.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one U.S. official said there was prior notification by the Ukrainian government that airspace had been set aside for military exercises.

It was not yet clear whether the jet was inside or outside that area at the time of the crash, the U.S. official said.

There were reports the plane had stopped in Bulgaria en route to Siberia, but Bulgarian presidential press secretary Nerry Terzieva said the jet neither stopped in Bulgaria and nor entered Bulgarian airspace.

Israel, which operates some of the world's most stringent aviation safety measures, canceled all takeoffs from Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv immediately after news of the crash for fear it may have been a terrorist attack.

The move came before the Ukrainian missile theory emerged. Departure flights were allowed to resume four hours after the crash. In-bound flights had not been affected.

Armenian pilot describes two explosions

The Russian Transport Ministry and domestic security service said the pilot of an Armenian An-24 plane flying near the Tu-154 reported to Russian air traffic controllers in Rostov-on-Don, southern Russia, that he had seen an explosion aboard the plane.

The pilot, Garik Ovanisian, was quoted by The AP as saying: "I saw the explosion on the plane, which was above me at an altitude of 11,000 meters [36,300 feet] above the Black Sea.

"The plane fell into the sea, and there was another explosion in the sea. After that I saw a big white spot on the sea and I had the impression that oil was burning."

Russian officials said 51 of the passengers were Israelis and 15 were Russians. All 11 crew members were Russians.

Russian officials said apparently there were no survivors.

An investigation would be led by Vladimir Rushailo, head of the presidential security council, and attempts to retrieve the flight's data recorders would be made.

A Russian search and rescue team was sent immediately to the site to look for survivors, as well as divers to find possible evidence.

Putin said on Russian television that "every shred of evidence" had to be retrieved from the crash site as "quickly as possible."

"We need to collect everything there -- get the experts examining everything," he said.

"If the depth allows, we need to get divers searching for the flight data recorder. We need it badly."

-- CNN's Jill Dougherty, Mke Hanna, David Ensor, Chris Plante, Mike Ahlers contributed to this report, as well as journalist Alexander Tkachenko in Kiev.


• TU-154 home page
• Aviation Safety Network: Tupelov 154 incidents

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