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Russian Team Defies Norwegians, Finds Crashed Plane’s Second ‘Black Box’

September 1, 1996

LONGYEARBYEN, Norway (AP) _ Two Russian mountaineers retrieved the cockpit voice recorder from a downed Russian airliner, but were arrested for searching the arctic crash site, officials said Sunday.

The climbers were briefly handcuffed late Saturday near the icy slopes where a Tupolev 154 crashed last week, killing all 141 people aboard. Most of the victims were Russian or Ukrainian miners and their families.

The mountaineers were released early Sunday and allowed to rejoin the investigation after saying they hadn’t meant to tamper with the site.

The climbers had been in a helicopter Saturday afternoon when clouds shrouding the site lifted. They used the chance to land, and found the voice recorder in less than 20 minutes.

The voice recorder and a flight data recorder, which was found Friday, were being analyzed. They could help explain why the Vnukovo Airlines charter from Moscow veered off course Thursday and slammed into a mountain six miles short of the main airport of Norway’s Svalbard Islands.

The crash was the deadliest in Norwegian history.

Most of the dead remain buried in snow and wreckage on 3,000-foot Opera Mountain on Spitsbergen Island.

Under a 1920 treaty, the Svalbard Islands are Norwegian but other countries, including Russia, have some rights to use them. Norway fiercely protects its authority on Svalbard, about 400 miles north of the mainland.

Russian civilians and officials have complained that Norway is moving too slowly in the search. The first 20 bodies weren’t recovered from the wreckage until two days after the crash.

``One has to understand that these people are impatient,″ said Alexander Moskalets, of the Russian crisis ministry. He said he talked to a Russian miner who couldn’t stand the thought that ``he was in a warm apartment while his wife and two children are up there in the cold snow.″

But the Norwegian governor of Svalbard, Ann-Kristin Olsen, told a news conference Sunday: ``We are trying to work systematically, and the Russians were many steps ahead of our plan.″

Even reaching the mountain is difficult. The area is roadless and icy. Weather, often severe, shifts quickly, and searchers also have be on guard for polar bears, which have killed two people in Svalbard in the past year.

About 50 Norwegian and Russian experts were working to bring down more bodies.

The victims were bound for two Russian mining settlements allowed on the archipelago under the 1920 treaty.

Grieving, frustrated Russians confronted Norway’s Justice Minister Grete Faremo when she arrived in Barentsburg to pay her respects Saturday.

``Let our people go up on the mountain and get the bodies,″ demanded Pavel Zerikov, of the local mountain rescue group. ``Our dead have been lying the mountains for nearly three days.″

About 80 victims, including Zerikov’s daughter, son-in-law and grandchild, were from the bleak, grimy village of 900 people, where the Russian flag was at half-staff.

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