MOSCOW -- Russian military authorities found strong evidence yesterday to support claims that a missile fired by Chechen rebels brought down a huge military transport helicopter in war-torn Chechnya, killing 114 people.
A shoulder-fired Strela anti-aircraft missile launcher was found near the smoldering wreckage of the Mi-26 helicopter that crash-landed in a minefield about 300 yards from a runway at Russia's Khankala military base, authorities told Interfax news service.
Witnesses have said that they saw a man fire what appeared to be a shoulder-launched missile from the second floor of an abandoned building near Grozny, capital of the separatist republic.
Russian authorities say they believe 114 people died in the crash, including 21 officers and, according to a report by Russian television, the child of one of the officers. Thirty-three people survived, but the conditions of at least 17 were described as grave. All five crew members, including the pilot, survived.
In all, 147 people were jammed into the large Mi-26 transport, an aircraft that has, according to the Web site of its manufacturer, Rostvertol, a maximum capacity of 82 troops.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced the suspension yesterday of Vitaly Pavlov, commander of the Russian army's aviation division, citing the "violation of instructions and orders."
After Monday's crash, some Russian military leaders played down claims by Chechen rebels that they had shot down the helicopter, saying that there was evidence of a fire in the aircraft's right engine. But yesterday, investigators clearly leaned toward the theory that a missile brought down the craft.
"An investigating group found the weapon of the crime, a Strela anti-aircraft missile launcher, which had been used," Interfax quoted a Russian military source as saying.
In repeating claims that Chechen rebels were responsible for the crash, a spokesman for the separatist movement defended the rebels' actions.
"When you have such great scale of atrocities in Chechnya, you have to do something to defend yourself," Roman Khalilov, a spokesman for Chechen separatists, told CNN yesterday. "I would like to make it clear we are not attacking civilians, we are attacking legitimate military targets."
The helicopter's pilot, Maj. Oleg Batanov, was able to land the transport short of the runway after noticing a fire in the right engine. But as the craft landed, mines detonated, setting the helicopter ablaze.
Many soldiers were trapped in the fiery wreckage because the helicopter's main doors were jammed as the impact of the crash bent the craft's frame. Other soldiers who made their way to side doors and jumped out were killed or maimed when they landed on mines.
"There was a flash on the right side near the engine, a clap, then everything was covered with kerosene, a black cloud of kerosene, everything went dark, and I lost consciousness," a soldier told Russian television.
"I came round when the helicopter hit the ground," the soldier said. "I did not know what to do; it was dark; I ran back to the tail."
The helicopter was transporting soldiers on leave and new draftees from an army base in Mozdok in the Russian republic of North Ossetia to the base at Khankala.
Russian news reports called the crash the worst in Russian military aviation history. In magnitude, it drew comparisons to the sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000, in which 118 officers and crew members died.
The crash also dealt a severe blow to Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's 35-month campaign against separatist rebels seeking independence for the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Putin's administration has tried to convince Russians that the war is all but over, even as soldiers on both sides are killed almost daily.
Alex Rodriguez is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.