By Nathan Pettingill
Russia yesterday observed a day of mourning for at least 89 people who died in a double air disaster that may have been a terrorist attack in the lead-up to elections in rebel Chechnya.
Flags flew at half-mast and comedy shows were pulled from theatres and television as relatives of those who died in Tuesday's disasters arrived at the crash sites to identify the dead.
Russian media scorned official statements that the two plane crashes, within minutes of one another, were the result of technical fault or human error.
"Russia now has its own September 11," read a front-page headline in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily newspaper.
It emerged yesterday that drunkenness saved the lives of six men who were stopped from boarding one of the two planes that crashed in Russia's south.
Izvestia reported that while 44 people were registered to fly on the Sibir Airlines plane bound for the Black Sea resort of Sochi, only 38 boarded.
"Six young men were so drunk before boarding that they were not allowed on," the newspaper said. "It saved their lives."
One aircraft, a Tu-134 flying to Volgograd, went down near the town of Tula, south of Moscow.
Moments later the Sochi-bound Tu-154 crashed near the southern city of Rostov-on-Don. The planes, which crashed 800 kilometres apart, both left from Moscow's Domodedovo Airport.
Sibir Airlines said the pilots of the Tu-154 triggered a hijack alert just before their plane crashed. A spokesman also said the fact wreckage was scattered across several square kilometres indicated the plane might have been destroyed by an explosion.
Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov said in a meeting with President Vladimir Putin that he could not rule out a terrorist act or human and technical errors. Mr Putin rushed to Moscow after breaking off his holiday in Sochi.
The flight recorders from the wreckage of the two planes have not revealed reliable information on the disasters' causes, a top official said yesterday.
Vladimir Yakovlev, the Russian President's envoy for the southern region, where one of the planes crashed, also said the main theory about the catastrophe "all the same remains terrorism", the ITAR-Tass news agency said. Officials have said several possibilities were being investigated as the cause of the crashes, including inferior fuel and human error and that they believed the planes' flight recorders would clarify the situation.
However, Mr Yakovlev said that the recorders "had gone out of service already before the fall of the airliners", ITAR-Tass said.
The crashes came against a backdrop of rising violence in Chechnya, where Moscow has been battling separatists for a decade.
Rebels launched a raid in the local capital Grozny last week and promised more before the presidential election in the region, which they have vowed to disrupt. Moderate separatists denied any role in the crashes.
But the fact officials were so coy about any possible link between the crashes and Chechen rebels caused confusion rather than relief in the media.