A Russian military plane, reported missing on Sunday shortly after takeoff from the city of Sochi with 92 people aboard, has crashed, leaving a trail of plane wreckage in the Black Sea, the Defence Ministry announced.
A Tupolev Tu-154 plane that was carrying 84 passengers and eight crew members disappeared at 5.40 am, from the radar on Sunday morning after taking off from Sochi Adler Airport at 5.20 am, state-run Sputnik news agency reported.
The plane, which first took off from Moscow, was headed to the Russian Hmeymim airbase in Latakia, Syria, where the country has a large military presence, for a concert ahead of the New Year's Eve.
"According to preliminary findings, the missing TU-154 arrived in Sochi from Chkalovsky airport in Moscow region for refuelling. Most likely, it crashed in mountainous area of Krasnodar territory," a source told Sputnik.
Most of the passengers on board were members of the Alexandrov Ensemble, the official choir of the Russian Armed Forces, the Defence Ministry said.
They were travelling from Moscow to Latakia to take part in a Christmas celebration with troops deployed there.
The head of the choir, conductor and composer Valery Khalilov, is among the 64 members of the ensemble presumed dead in the accident, RT news said.
The victims also included journalists from from Channel One Russia, NTV, and Zvezda (the official media outlet of the Russian Defence Ministry), each with three members, the outlets confirmed.
The passenger list released by the Defence Ministry also includes Elizaveta Glinka, a prominent charity activist and humanitarian worker. She is best known by her blogger nickname "Doctor Liza".
However, there is some confusion over whether she was on board the plane, as some sources say she may have missed the flight at the last moment, RT news noted.
Helicopters dispatched from Sochi to search for the aircraft have discovered the crash site, the ministry reported.
"Hull fragments of the Tu-154 plane operated by the Defence Ministry have been found about 1.5 km off the Black Sea coast of Sochi at a depth of 50-70 meters," the ministry said in a statement.
So far, no survivors have been found in the sea, local rescue services said.
The Tu-154 could have crashed because of a technical malfunction or a pilot's error but not terrorism, chairman of the Federation Council Committee on Defence and Security Viktor Ozerov said, according to Sputnik news agency.
"I rule out version of the terror attack completely. It is the aircraft of the Ministry of Defence, the airspace of the Russian Federation, there cannot be such a version," Ozerov said. He added, "The plane had to make a U-turn after takeoff over the sea, may took the wrong direction."
The Russian Investigation Committee has launched a routine criminal investigation of the Tu-154 to examine potential "violation of rules of flight safety or preparation," the committee's official spokesperson Svetlana Petrenko said.
The Tu-154 is a three-engine medium-range airliner produced by Russian aerospace and defence company Tupolev.
It is one of the fastest civilian aircraft in use and widely used in extreme Arctic conditions.