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Indonesians find wreckage of missing Russian plane

Indonesian authorities say they have found the wreckage of a Russian Sukhoi passenger plane that went missing during a demonstration flight near a volcano on Indonesia's Java island yesterday, officials said. There was no sign of survivors.

The wreckage was spotted on the edge of a cliff at 1650 metres by a search helicopter, officials said.

Russia's first post-Soviet civilian jet vanished from radar screens south of Indonesia's sprawling capital Jakarta yesterday, 50 minutes into what was meant to be a short flight to show off its capabilities to prospective buyers.

Initial efforts to locate the jet proved fruitless and after the search resumed at first light today, the crew of an Indonesian Super Puma military helicopter saw the wreckage in the vicinity of a dormant volcano.

'Plane flew into an almost vertical wall of rock'

"The Sukhoi has been found just now," said Ketut Parwa, search and rescue agency chief for Jakarta, who was coordinating operations. "There is debris spotted by the helicopter, [we have] confirmed it is from the Sukhoi," he said.


National search and rescue chief Daryatmo, who goes by one name, said the helicopter's pilot had spotted wreckage including the Sukhoi logo on the ground.

"We spotted the fragments at the coordinates where we lost contact with the plane," he told a news conference.

Ali Umri Lubis, spokesman for the search helicopter's military airbase, said the plane was spotted in the Cijeruk area, near the dormant volcano Mount Salak, close to the city of Bogor in West Java.

An Indonesian air force unit was preparing to drop a team from a helicopter onto the ridge in search of survivors, air force spokesman Yunis said.

Soldiers, some carrying climbing ropes, also trooped up forested slopes towards the crash site, a Reuters witness said.

A picture taken from the rescue helicopter that found the debris appeared to show that the plane flew into an almost vertical wall of rock on an inaccessible part of the mountain.

Small pieces of white debris could be seen scattered down an exposed stretch of cliff surrounded by forest. It would take at least six hours to walk to the site, rescue officials said.

'Veering left and right'

All efforts must be made in this rescue operation... and the priority must be to save survivors, if any

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters that "all efforts must be made in this rescue operation... and the priority must be to save survivors, if any".

Juanda, a 41-year old villager who goes by one name, said he was feeding his chickens when he heard a roar overhead.

"I looked up and saw a huge white plane moving unsteadily just slightly below the mountain summit. It was still way above the trees but veering left and right, and then it disappeared," he told AFP by telephone from Tenjolaya district near Salak mountain.

"I heard a sound like firecrackers, but I couldn't see it anymore," he said.

Two helicopters searching for the plane yesterday evening were forced to turn back due to strong winds and bad weather.

By midnight, hundreds of rescuers had set up three posts around the mountain as they prepared for search and rescue operations.

Businessmen, diplomats and journalists on board

The Superjet 100 plane - Russia's first all-new passenger jet since the fall of the Soviet Union - was carrying Indonesian businessmen, Russian embassy officials and journalists, Indonesian and Russian officials said.

Transport ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan said the plane was flying at 10,000 feet and asked for permission to descend to 6000 feet. "The last contact was when they asked for permission to descend from 10,000 feet to 6000 feet," Ervan said.

"The plane was doing the first flight around midday and returned to the airport, but when it took off the second time, it lost contact around Bogor," Ervan said.

On board were Indonesian aviation and airline representatives, except for eight Russians - four of them crew and four of them Sukhoi employees - plus an American and one Frenchman, officials said.

Indonesia's search and rescue agency was looking for the jet near one of many volcanoes that form the backbone of Indonesia's main island. Air traffic accidents are common in the sprawling South-East Asian archipelago of 17,000 islands.

"Salak's a big mountain, I didn't hear anything," said Jocean Bowler, an American running an organic farm on the slopes of the mountain, visible from the capital on clear days and a popular tourist destination.

Rear Admiral Iskandar Sitompul, the spokesman for TNI, Indonesia's Armed Forces, told the Globe it was likely that the plane crashed as it only had fuel for a four-hour flight.

Olga Kayukova, a spokeswoman for Russia's United Aircraft Corporation, told Reuters the Sukhoi Superjet-100 was on a second flight as part of a demonstration programme in Indonesia.

"The first flight was carried out in a normal mode ... The pre-flight preparations were carried out in full and the plane was completely ready to fly," she said.

"According to information from Indonesia, the contact with the plane was broken after 20 minutes from the take-off, at 1435 local time," Kayukova said.

Russian PM establishes commission

The Russian Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, has established a commission to investigate the disappearance, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti said.

Sukhoi, which has orders for 170 planes worldwide, plans to produce up to 1000 superjets, primarily for foreign markets. It aimed to sell 42 planes to Indonesia, which is seeing a fast expanding aviation market to tap travel by a growing middle class in the world's fourth most populous nation.

The jet was developed with Western design advice and technology from Boeing and Italy's Finmeccanica , as well as avionics and engine equipment from French aerospace firms Thales and Safran.

Built in a converted corner of a Sukhoi fighter factory in Siberia, it was first unveiled in 2007 as part of a drive to curb Russia's dependence on oil and gas and restore pride in its aviation industry, but ran into a series of development delays.

The Superjet 100, with a capacity of 68-103 passengers, is already in service with Russia's Aeroflot and Armenian carrier Armavia and is half way through a 15,500-km, six-nation Asian tour to try to drum up more international customers.

The aircraft is being marketed internationally in partnership with Finmeccanica subsidiary Alenia Aeronautica.

Reuters/AFP with Glenda Kwek