A chartered Russian airliner heading from Israel to Siberia exploded at 36,000 feet today and plummeted into the Black Sea coast with 78 people on board.
President Vladimir Putin said that terrorism could be the cause: ‘‘A civilian aircraft crashed today and it is possible that it is the result of a terrorist act,’’ he said in Moscow.
Israel immediately stopped foreign flights from leaving its main international airport.
The crew of an Armenian airliner saw the Tupolov 154 jetliner explode.
Garik Ovanisian, the pilot of the Armenian An-24, said his plane was at 20,790 feet above the Black Sea when the plane above his exploded.
‘‘I saw the explosion on the plane, which was above me at an altitude of 36,300 feet,’’ Ovanisian said.
‘‘The plane fell into the sea, and there was another explosion in the sea. After that I saw a big white spot on the sea and I had the impression that oil was burning.’’
The plane went down in pieces 114 miles off the Russian coastal city of Adler, located on the Georgian border, said Vasily Yurchuk, a spokesman for the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
The plane was on its way from Tel Aviv to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, Yurchuk said. It belonged to Sibir Airlines, which is based in Novosibirsk, about 1,750 miles east of Moscow.
Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service, told Putin in a televised meeting that Russian officials had first learned of the crash from Armenian officials.
He said planes and ships had been sent to the area of the crash within 15 minutes.
‘‘We must launch rescue work, gather all we can and conduct expertise. If the sea depth allows that, we must try to recover the black box,’’ Putin said.
Ivan Teterian, chief of the Ministry of Emergency Situations in southern Russia, said ‘‘we cannot exclude a terrorist attack.’’
Bush administration officials quickly contacted their counterparts in Moscow in an attempt to determine whether there was a connection between the explosion and the September 11 terrorist attacks or US plans to retaliate.
Putin called the head of the Federal Security Service and the defence minister to the Kremlin.
He named Vladimir Rushailo, head of the presidential Security Council, to head the investigation.
Israeli Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said there was no clear evidence yet that the plane crashed as the result of a terror attack.
After the crash, Israel suspended takeoffs of foreign flights from its main airport, Ben Gurion International near Tel Aviv.
Sneh said some Israeli citizens were on board the flight. Officials at Ben Gurion would not release a passenger list.