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Siberian plane crash kills 31 in oil town

Thirty-one people died Monday when a Russian jet crashed and burst into flames moments after taking off from an oil-rich Siberian region, where another jumbo jet aborted its flight a few hours later.

The emergencies ministry said the French-Italian made ATR-72 was carrying 39 passengers and four crew when it came down 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the western Siberian city of Tyumen after taking off for the oil town of Surgut.

“Twelve people are in critical condition… Thirty-one have been killed,” the Tyumen emergencies ministry said in an updated statement after initially putting the death toll at 32.

The twin-engine turboprop was operated by UTair — a private Russian airline that conducts most of its flights in the energy-rich regions of Western Siberia and the Ural Mountains.

The airline said in a statement that the plane came down “while conducting a forced landing 1.5 kilometres (about one mile)” outside Roshchino airport.

An airport security officer told Interfax news agency the plane had only managed to climb to about 100 metres before it lost all communication with air traffic controllers.

One person on the ground said he noticed a problem as soon as the plane left the runway.

“There was a small flash of light followed by smoke,” the witness identified only as Alexei told RIA Novosti news agency.

“The plane started turning, the smoke kept pouring out, and then the plane went into the field,” he said.

Unnamed investigators at the site told Interfax that both of the plane’s engines were working until the final moment it crashed into a snowy field.

One source also speculated that the plane may not have been de-iced properly prior to takeoff.

UTair itself gave no immediate reason for the crash.

But it reported that pilots of a much larger Boeing 747 jumbo had to put on their emergency breaks and abort an attempt to take-off from the same airport just a few hours later after discovering a serious problem with the jet.

“The Boeing 747 commander had to slow on the runway after reporting that the plane was not set to its standard configuration,” Interfax quoted the local Investigative Committee as saying.

Passengers on the Boeing were later put on another UTair flight. There was no immediate explanation of what kind of fault the plane had.

Emergency and rescue workers who rushed to the crash site found the ATR-72 ablaze and the jet itself broken up into multiple charred pieces that bore few signs of life.

State television footage showed the tail lying in a snow-covered field some distance from other debris under a clear blue sky.

The city of Tyumen lies 1,700 kilometres (1,000 miles) east of Moscow and is the capital of one of Russia’s biggest oil producing regions of the same name.

The plane was flying to Surgut — the heart of the Surgutneftegaz energy company and one of Russia’s largest oil and natural gas producers.

Interfax said one of the company’s board members and several of its employees were on board the flight. Investigators were still identifying the survivors.

Russia’s once-proud aviation industry remains blighted by repeated accidents involving its ageing and poorly looked-after fleet.

President-elect Vladimir Putin has already ordered Russia’s older planes to be taken out of service by the end of the year and for pilots and smaller air carriers to be subject to strict tests and regulations.

The crash marks the first disaster Putin will have to deal with following his March 4 re-election and underscores the difficulties Russia has faced in updating its Soviet-era infrastructure.

Officials have identified poor pilot training and lax safety rules as one of the most immediate problems affecting Russian aviation.

But plans to eliminate smaller carriers that employ just a handful of planes as a safety precaution have run up against the reality that Russia lacks the fleet needed to span the country’s vast distances.

Officials promised to recall the licences of 30 smaller airlines in response to a September 2011 plane crash that claimed the lives of 44 people — most of them members of the championship-winning ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.