A Russian passenger plane bound from Tel Aviv to Siberia may have been accidentally shot down by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile fired during a military exercise, U.S. officials told ABCNEWS.
The Ukrainian government initially ruled out the possibility that its military had a role in the downing of the airliner.
Neither the direction nor the range [of the missiles] correspond to the practical or theoretical point at which the plane exploded," Defense Ministry spokesman Konstantin Khivrenko told Reuters. "So the Ukrainian military has no involvement, either practical or theoretical, in this accident."
But Reuters reported today that Ukrainian Prime Minister Anatoly Kinakh was quoted by Interfax-Ukraine news agency as saying the notion that the aircraft was accidently downed during a military exercise had "a right to exist," although it was too early to draw conclusions.
Visiting Relatives for Jewish Holiday
Siberian Airlines Flight SB 1812 left Tel Aviv for the Siberian city of Novosibirsk Thursday morning and was about two hours into its journey when it plunged into the Black Sea, about 114 miles off the Russian coastal city of Adler and about 110 miles southwest of the Russian city of Sochi.
There were 78 people on board, some of them recent Russian immigrants to Israel who were going to visit relatives during a Jewish holiday.
A U.S. official said a "no-fly" area had been established for the Ukrainian military exercises but it may not have been large enough to cover the area where the airliner went down.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said it was too soon to say what the cause was, but that the United States had no indications that terrorism was involved.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday he doubts a Ukrainian missile would have had the range to have hit the plane. He said the Russian military observed the exercises on the spot and that "we have no grounds not to trust them and the Ukrainian military."
Putin also said a "terrorist act" could be responsible for the crash.
The Ukrainian military has been conducting air-defense exercises near Crimea since the end of September. Russia's NTV reported the Ukrainian military did conduct launches of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles at approximately the same the time the plane disappeared from Russian air-traffic radar.
NTV also said the Ukrainian missiles were of a "critical age" and that it was not known if they were carrying conventional warheads.
‘A Big White Spot on the Sea’
The Russian Tupolev 154 airliner, operated by Siberia Airlines, left the airport Thursday morning and was about two hours into its journey when air traffic controllers in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia, noticed that it had disappeared off their radar screens.
The air traffic controllers in Rostov-on-Don immediately contacted all aircraft in the region asking for possible sightings or unusual events.
A captain of an Armenian-owned AN-24 turboprop plane in the region replied, and said he had seen "an exploding plane" on his port side, and that debris was falling into the Black Sea.
Garik Ovanisian, the pilot of the Armenian AN-24, told The Associated Press his plane was at 20,790 feet above the Black Sea when the Tupolev 154 exploded.
"I saw the explosion on the plane, which was above me at an altitude of 36,300 feet," Ovanisian said. "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."
Russia Launches Investigation
A statement released by the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB as it is known, said the organization was "taking into account the latest events in the world, the theory of a terrorist act is being investigated first of all."
Russia said it asked Israel and the United States for help unraveling the explosion and crash.
Israeli officials said they were still looking into possible causes of the crash. In a statement released by Israel's Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said there was no clear evidence yet that the plane crashed as a result of a terror attack.
Israeli aviation officials said Flight SB 1812 went through the normal security procedures at the Tel Aviv airport, where security standards are believed to be among the most stringent in the world.
Putin has created a task force to be headed by FSB chief Nikolay Patrushev to investigate the crash. Hours after the crash, Putin met with Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Ivanov and FSB head Nikolay Patrushev to discuss the situation. Putin has named Vladimir Rushailo, head of the Russian Security Council, to head the investigation.
President Bush has been briefed about the incident, said White House officials, and U.S.officials were carefully ascertaining the facts.
Emergency Teams at Work
Emergency teams at the site have recovered at least 12 bodies, according to Russian media reports. Rescue service crews from Sochi have been dispatched to the site, and two salvage-recovery tugs and an AN-12 plane and Mi-8 helicopter were also headed to the site. Early sightings from salvage planes in the area showed a "large reddish spot" and "white specks" on the surface of the Black Sea, according to Russian media reports.
The Russian salvage ship Spasatel Prokopchik was also being readied to aid in the rescue mission. The depth of the Black Sea in that area reaches about 1,000 meters.
ABCNEWS' Sergiusz Morenc in Moscow and reporters in ABCNEWS' Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.