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Alexandrov Ensemble choir wiped out as Russian crashes into Dead Sea

By Vladimir Isachenkov

Russia is observing a day of mourning today after a plane crashed into the Black Sea killing 92 people, including members of a well-known military choir.

There was no indication anyone survived the crash of the Tu-154, which belonged to the Defence Ministry and was taking the Alexandrov Ensemble to a holiday concert at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia.

Crews reportedly found 10 bodies and ships, helicopters and drones were searching the area for more.

A total of 84 passengers and eight crew members were on the plane when it disappeared from radars two minutes after taking off in good weather from Sochi.

Emergency crews found fragments less than one mile from shore. There was no immediate word on the cause.

Viktor Ozerov, head of the defence affairs committee at the upper house of the Russian parliament, said the crash could have been caused by a technical malfunction or a crew error, but he believes it could not have been terrorism because the plane was operated by the military.

The passenger list released by the Defence Ministry included 64 members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, among them its leader, Valery Khalilov. The ensemble is the official choir of the Russian military and also includes a band and a dance company.

Nine Russian journalists, including a TV crew from Channel One, were also among the passengers, as was charity worker and humanitarian activist Elizaveta Glinka.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was personally co-ordinating the rescue efforts, and President Vladimir Putin has received official reports.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has sent his condolences to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"To our great regret, we received the news about the crash of Russia's Tu-154. Our friends were on board, friends who were planning to share with us and the people of Aleppo the joy of the victory and holidays," Assad said in a telegram.

The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built three-engine airliner designed in the late 1960s. More than 1,000 have been built, and they have been used extensively by carriers in Russia and worldwide.

In recent years, Russian airlines have replaced their Tu-154s with more modern planes, but the military and some other government agencies in Russia have continued to use them.

While noisy and fuel-guzzling by modern standards, the plane has been popular with crews that appreciate its manoeuvrability and ruggedness. "It's an excellent plane, which has proven its reliability during decades of service," veteran pilot Oleg Smirnov said in televised remarks.

The plane that crashed was built in 1983, and underwent repairs in 2014, according to the Defence Ministry.

In April 2010, a Tu-154 carrying Polish president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others crashed while trying to land in bad weather at a sporadically-used military airport in Smolensk in western Russia, killing everyone on board.

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