Publication: Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 162

The tragic crash of a Russian airliner on the Arctic island of Spitzbergen on August 29 killed all 141 people on board and momentarily strained relations between Russia and Norway. The Tu-154 aircraft slammed into the side of a mountain in bad weather during its approach to the airport on the remote Norwegian island. The passengers were mostly Russian and Ukrainian coal miners, some with their families, employed by Russia’s Arktikugol. The mines are operated by Arktikugol under an agreement with Norway.

Initial search and rescue operations were hampered by harsh weather conditions, and distraught Russian citizens living in the island’s Russian mining community were reportedly critical of Norwegian authorities over the weekend for what they saw as delays in recovering bodies and providing information about the crash. The atmosphere of distrust worsened on August 31 when two members of an 11-man Russian team of mountaineering experts, flown in to help with the search, were arrested for visiting the crash site without Norwegian authorization. The two Russians, who did manage to recover the cockpit voice recorder from the downed plane, were accused by the governor of the Norwegian Arctic territory of a breach of trust and of failing to respect that the crash investigation was headed by Norway. However, they were released and allowed to continue in the search effort, and Russia’s Foreign Ministry on September 2 expressed regrets over what it called a misunderstanding between the two sides. Under a 1920 treaty Spitzbergen belongs to Norway but other countries, including Russia, enjoy some rights to use it.

Meanwhile, both the flight data recorder, found on Friday, and the voice recorder were flown to Moscow for examination. The crash was the deadliest in Norwegian history. It was also the latest in a series of Russian air disasters that have raised questions about the safety of Russia’s post-Soviet airlines. (Western and Russian agencies, August 29-September 2)

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