In a field 120 miles outside Moscow, lines of soldiers in red berets and camouflage retreated on Aug. 26 from what could prove to be the latest front in Russia's ongoing war on terror. Two days after two commercial jetliners fell from the sky within minutes of each other, the search for bodies was over. But the search for answers was just beginning.
As investigators moved in to replace soldiers at the twin crash sites-one near Moscow, the other farther south, near the Black Sea-officials insisted no possible cause was being ruled out. It might have been weather, they said. It might have been bad fuel, or even human error. But Russia's independent newspapers were having none of it. "Russia now has a Sept. 11," the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta said in a headline, echoing similar reports from across the country. The facts, at first glance, appeared to back them up.
Both planes-a Sibir Airlines Tu-154 with 46 onboard and a Volga-Aviaexpress Tu-134 carrying 43-took off within 40 minutes of each other from the single terminal at Moscow's Domodedovo field, a small airport serving mostly domestic flights. Around 11 a.m. local time on Aug. 24, the two planes disappeared from radar screens within three minutes of each other. There were no survivors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a national day of mourning on Thursday, and flags flew at half-staff while TV and radio stations suspended all entertainment programming. Relatives began arriving at both crash sites to identify their loved ones' remains, and the government quickly promised compensation to victims' families. "Not a single person will be left without our attention and care," said Transport Minister Igor Levitin, chairman of a commission charged with investigating the crashes.
Amidst swirling rumors and widespread fear, Mr. Putin urged calm and patience. He asked the national legislature to turn over airport security to the Interior Ministry, but Mr. Putin at the same time took pains to downplay assumptions of terrorism. "I'm hoping that the first steps in your work will be the unconditional supply of objective and authentic information about what has happened to all those who need it," he told investigators in an apparent rebuke of sensational newspaper headlines.
TASS, the state news agency, was doing its best to toe the go-slow party line. In nearly two dozen terse updates throughout the day on Aug. 26, the agency rarely mentioned terrorism and never once used the word Chechnya.
Still, after two years in which terrorist strikes have claimed some 500 lives, Chechnya was clearly on everyone's mind. The independence-minded, predominantly Muslim region has birthed several violent separatist groups, and 70,000 Russian troops have been called in to maintain an uneasy peace.
Despite their current equivocations, Russian authorities weren't always so sanguine about the likelihood of terrorism. Indeed, for weeks they had warned publicly of a Madrid-style terrorist attack designed to disrupt Chechen elections scheduled for Aug. 28.
With Mr. Putin's hand-picked, pro-Moscow candidate leading in late polls, the Russian president can ill-afford a last-minute shift in public opinion. Independent observers widely believe Chechen elections are rigged in Moscow's favor to begin with, so an unexpected loss by the pro-Russian candidate would be a major embarrassment and could increase international pressure for some sort of power-sharing arrangement.
That's an option Mr. Putin has steadfastly refused thus far. But with the press openly questioning Russia's ability to protect her citizens from terrorism, public pressure within the country may soon begin to mount, and Moscow's hard-line Chechen policy could go down as the final fatality of the mysterious airline crashes.