MOSCOW -- A military helicopter crash that killed 114 people in Chechnya was most likely caused by a rebel attack from the ground, Russia's chief prosecutor said Tuesday, and a news agency reported that a missile launcher had been found nearby.
Monday's crash outside the Russian military headquarters at Khankala has been described by media as the country's worst military air disaster.
"We are investigating several theories of the cause of this incident, but we consider the theory of fire from the ground to be the main one," prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
Interfax reported that investigators found a Strela anti-aircraft missile launcher that had been used to shoot down the Mi-26 helicopter. Chechen rebels on Monday claimed that they had shot the helicopter down.
"There was a flash to the right, near the engine, then a bang, and then a black kerosene cloud veiled everything," Sergei Shishayev, a soldier who survived the crash, told RTR television from his hospital bed. "I felt like I was dreaming, then I lost consciousness."
Officials at first gave widely differing accounts of how many people had been on board the helicopter and how many had been killed. On Tuesday evening, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said 114 out of 147 people on board were killed. Russia's TVS television said the dead included one child, who was traveling with his mother, an army nurse.
All five of the crew survived the crash. The passengers were a mix of officers, conscripts and contract soldiers returning from leave or traveling to Chechnya to relieve units that were to have been rotated out of the region, state television reported.
President Vladimir Putin declared Thursday a day of mourning for those killed in the crash.
The helicopter's flight data recorders were found and were brought to Mozdok for examination. Media reports said the recorders were severely damaged.
Ivanov said he was suspending the army's aviation commander, Col. Gen. Vitaly Pavlov, until the investigation into the crash was completed. Ivanov said Pavlov had violated instructions, but that these violations were not connected to the crash.
The Mi-26 normally seats a maximum of 80 combat-equipped troops in addition to crew, but Ivanov denied that the helicopter was overloaded.
"The helicopter can take many more people on board and fly with one working engine," Interfax quoted Ivanov as saying. He called the theory that helicopter crashed because of overloading "absurd."
The Kommersant newspaper reported that overcrowded flights, carrying up to 110 people in addition to cargo, had become the norm. The paper reported that Mozdok had suffered a spell of bad weather in recent days, with rain and heavy fog, and that flights had been irregular in any case because of inadequate supplies of fuel and spare parts.
The paper described a horrendous scene of servicemen clambering out of the helicopter, only to set off explosions in the minefield planted to prevent rebel incursions into Khankala. First-aid workers had to call in mine-clearers to make a path to the burning helicopter before they could set to work. RTR also reported that some of the passengers were killed by mines when they jumped out of the helicopter.
However, Col. Boris Podoprigora denied that the helicopter had landed in a minefield.
"The helicopter fell and caught fire and, according to information I have, nobody was blown up by mines," he was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
The crash came amid a spate of rebel actions against Russian forces in Chechnya, including attacks late last week in southwestern Chechnya that killed nine servicemen and five civilians.
Some analysts surmised that rebels had intensified their actions to underline to the Russian government that it should enter peace negotiations.
Russia's government maintains that the war it launched in the breakaway Caucasus Mountain republic in fall 1999 is all but over, with just isolated groups of rebels holding out. However, Russian soldiers are killed almost every day in rebel attacks.