AT LEAST 31 people were killed early on Monday when a Russian passenger plane carrying 43 people crashed into a snowy field in Siberia shortly after taking off.
The crash, just two miles from the airport the plane departed from, is the latest Russian air disaster to bring mass casualties, months after 44 people, including members and coaches of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl hockey team, were killed.
The other 13 people on board Monday’s flight, operated by UTair, were in a serious condition last night.
Witnesses said they saw smoke coming from the aircraft’s engines shortly before it crashed.
The flight took off at 7:40am local time from Tyumen, a regional centre in Siberia about 1,000 miles east of Moscow, heading for the oil town of Surgut, about 400 miles away.
The plane came down in a field about two miles away from the Tyumen airport, breaking into three sections on impact. Part of it was destroyed by a fire that burned at least six people to death, said Sergei Kiselyov, the police chief at the Roshchino airport in Tyumen.
The cause of the crash was not immediately clear, but investigators said evidence so far points to a technical failure of the French/Italian-made twin-engine aircraft.
They said that the pilots had tried to return to the airport shortly after the plane took off.
The Federal Investigative Committee said that while equipment failure appeared to be the most likely cause of the crash, pilot error or mistakes by air traffic controllers had not been ruled out.
All of the 39 passengers and four crew on board were Russian, according to a list by UTair.
Mr Kiselyov commented: “One survivor stood up on his own and waited until he was given medical help and only then felt worse.”
Russia has seen a string of deadly crashes in recent years. Some have been blamed on the use of aging Soviet-era aircraft, but industry experts point to a number of other problems, including poor crew training, crumbling airports, lax government controls and widespread neglect of safety in the pursuit of profits.
Air safety has been notoriously bad in Russia, but it had seemed to be improving, correspondents say.
Pilot error was blamed for a September crash in Yaroslavl, 150 miles north-east of Moscow, that killed 44 people, including the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl professional hockey team.
Pilot error and fog were also ruled the main causes of a crash in April 2010 that killed Poland’s president and 95 other people as their plane was trying to land near Smolensk, in western Russia.
The ATR-72 has been involved in several accidents in past years.
Most recently, one went down in bad weather in Cuba in November 2010, killing all 68 people on board.
Cuban aviation officials said the investigation showed there was nothing wrong with the aircraft.