Toll in Russian helicopter crash in Chechnya rises to 15

The toll from the crash of a Russian military helicopter in Chechnya has risen to 15 servicemen, the regional branch of the Emergency Situations ministry said Friday. Fifteen of the 16 Russian servicemen on board the Mi-8 helicopter died in the crash Thursday near the Chechen capital, Grozny, and another was seriously wounded, a ministry spokesman said. The previous death toll stood at 14. The Interfax news agency quoted a source close to the investigation as saying that investigators had found rotor blades damaged by wires at the scene confirming a preliminary theory that the helicopter did not come under hostile fire but crashed after hitting a power line. The unnamed law enforcement official, however, did not rule out the possibility that the crash could have been caused by a piloting mistake or outside impact. Investigators also recovered the helicopter's black box flight recorders, which should help to establish the cause of the crash, a Russian military spokesman was quoted as saying by Interfax. Russian forces battling rebels in Chechnya have lost a number of helicopters to ground fire, but many others crashed due to pilot error or technical malfunctions. Russia's Defense Ministry said earlier this month that the military has lost 15 aircraft and 22 pilots in action over Chechnya since 2001. In Russia's worst military aviation catastrophe, an overcrowded Mi-26 heavy transport helicopter was shot down by a shoulder-fired missile as it prepared to land at a base near the Chechen capital in August 2002. Burning fuel gushed into the cabin, killing 127 of the 147 passengers. Officials and media reports said that many other crashes of helicopters in Chechnya were caused by increasing wear-and-tear of Soviet-built aircraft left without proper maintenance because of the military's fund shortage. Harsh weather in the mountainous region has also contributed to the mounting losses of military aircraft. Associated Press

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