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Search operation in the Black Sea near Sochi, Russia. Photo: 25 December 2016Image copyrightEPA
Image captionDozens of ships, planes, helicopters and submersibles are involved in the search operation

Russian divers in the Black Sea have found the fuselage of a military plane which crashed on Sunday with 92 people on board, emergency officials say.

A huge search operation is continuing, involving some 3,500 people on ships, jets, helicopters and submersibles.

The Tu-154 plane – carrying soldiers, members of a famed army music ensemble and reporters – was heading for Syria.

All those on board are feared dead after Sunday’s crash. Monday has been declared a national day of mourning.

First bodies found

Emergency officials said initial information suggested the fuselage was located 27m (89ft) below the surface and 1.7km (one mile) from the shore in the direction of the runway.

“Divers investigated an object found by sonar and are convinced that it is the body of the crashed plane,” Interfax news agency quoted a source as saying.

So far only 11 bodies and 154 body parts have been found, but officials believe many more may be trapped inside the remains of the aircraft.

Search teams – including 139 divers – worked through the night in three shifts, and the operation “did not stop for a minute”, Defence Ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov said at a briefing on Monday.

The 10.5 sq km (four square miles) search area just off the coast had been extended, he added.

Ten of the bodies and “86 fragments” of bodies have now arrived in Moscow for identification, Maj Gen Konashenkov said later.

Flowers are laid at the home of the Alexandrov Ensemble in Moscow, 25 DecImage copyrightEPA
Image captionIn Moscow, a makeshift memorial has appeared at the home of the Alexandrov Ensemble

On Monday, Russian Transport Minister Maksim Sokolov said that terrorism was not “among the main versions” of the possible causes of the crash.

He reiterated that investigators were looking into whether a pilot error or technical fault may have brought down the aircraft.

The minister earlier stressed that it was too early to speculate on possible crash causes.

Russian media quoted Aerospace Forces Commander Viktor Bondarev as saying that the plane’s black boxes had been located and they were not likely to have been damaged.

The plane disappeared from radar two minutes after taking off from Sochi’s Adler airport at 05:25 (02:25 GMT), heading for Latakia in Syria, the defence ministry said.

The flight had originated in Moscow and landed in Sochi for refuelling.

It was carrying 64 members of the famed Alexandrov military music ensemble, who were to perform for Russian troops in Syria.

What is the Alexandrov Ensemble?

The Alexandrov Ensemble perform in Moscow, Russia 31 March 2016Image copyrightREUTERS
  • Alexandrov Ensemble is the official choir of the Russian armed forces
  • It was founded in 1928 during the Soviet era
  • The group also includes an orchestra and dancers
  • It takes its name from its first director, Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov, who wrote the music to the national anthem of the Soviet Union
  • Holds the right to use the term Red Army Choir, although the interior ministry’s MVD Ensemble also uses it
  • Listen to the Alexandrov Ensemble here

An audio recording played on Russian media and said to be of the final conversation between air traffic controllers and the plane reveals no sign of any difficulties.

Voices remain calm until the plane disappears and the controllers try in vain to re-establish contact.

The plane came into service in 1983.

Maj Gen Konashenkov said the aircraft was last serviced in September and had undergone more substantial repairs in December 2014. It had an “experienced” pilot, he said.

The Tu-154 that crashed into the Black Sea is seen at a military airport near Moscow in 2015Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionThe Tu-154 that crashed into the Black Sea is seen at a military airport near Moscow in 2015
Candles in central Sochi in memory of the crash victims. Photo: 25 December 2016Image copyrightAP
Image captionCandles have been lit in central Sochi in memory of the crash victims

The defence ministry has published a passenger list (in Russian).

As well as the Alexandrov Ensemble, those on board included nine journalists, eight soldiers, two civil servants and eight crew members.

Among the victims was Elizaveta Glinka, known as Dr Liza, the executive director of the Fair Aid charity and the inaugural winner of Russia’s state prize for achievements in human rights.

The Alexandrov Ensemble was scheduled to perform a New Year’s concert at Russia’s Hmeimim air base near Latakia.

Russia has been carrying out air strikes in support of Syrian government forces who are battling rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Tupolev-154Image copyrightAFP

Tupolev-154: Russian workhorse

  • The backbone of Soviet and Russian airlines for decades
  • Three engines, narrow-bodied and medium range
  • Designed in the mid-60s, came into service in 1972 and was modernised in 1986 with new engines and equipment
  • Has seen 39 fatal accidents, although few were due to technical problems. Many were as a result of difficult weather conditions and poor air traffic control. A few were lost in conflicts including in Lebanon, Georgia and Afghanistan
  • Not used in Russia’s civil aviation since 2009, but is still used by the military. Only about 50 in service worldwide

Map showing Sochi in Russia