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Jet Missing In Russian Far East Plane Carried 97, Latest In Disastrous Air Safety Year

An Aeroflot plane with 97 people aboard disappeared from radar screens early Thursday in Russia’s Far East and was presumed to have crashed.

The Tu-154 plane was en route from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on the Pacific island of Sakhalin to Khabarovsk on the mainland when it lost radio contact, said Vasily Yurchuk, spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry in Moscow.

Local radio monitors in Japan quoted Radio Moscow as saying the plane was found crashed and in flames about 120 miles from Khabarovsk but that account was denied Thursday in Moscow by the Ministry for Emergency Situations.

On board were an eight-person crew and 89 passengers, including a baby, he said.

Two search planes and a helicopter flew to the area on the mainland where the plane was believed to have gone down, 100 miles east of Khabarovsk.

Yurchuk said the plane left Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on an hour-long flight at 2:43 a.m. Thursday (8:43 a.m. Wednesday PST). Halfway through the flight it lost radio contact, and five minutes later it disappeared from radar screens.

Air safety in Russia has fallen dramatically since the decline of the Soviet Union, in part due to budget cuts, decreased maintenance and the disintegration of regulation.

More than 300 people were killed in crashes in the former Soviet Union last year, the worst year ever for air travel in the region.