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A Russian Tu-154 plane with 93 people on board has crashed into the Black Sea, the defense ministry has said.

The military plane disappeared from radar two minutes after taking off from the resort of Sochi at 05:25AM local time. Debris and one body have been found, with no reports of any survivors.

The Russian defense ministry said the Tu-154 was carrying soldiers, 65 members of the famed Alexandrov military music ensemble, and nine reporters.

The plane was flying to Latakia in Syria.

The flight originated in Moscow and had landed at Adler airport in Sochi for refueling.

The Russian defense ministry said in a statement: “Fragments of the Tu-154 plane of the Russian defense ministry were found 1.5km [one mile] from the Black Sea coast of the city of Sochi at a depth of 50 to 70m [165-230ft.”

Image source WIkimedia

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 being faced by the crew.

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

Reports from the area said flying conditions were favorable.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a state commission to look into the crash and sent his condolences to the families and friends of the victims.

The defense ministry has published a passenger list, showing that 65 of those on board were from the Alexandrov Ensemble, including its director, Valery Khalilov.

There were 9 journalists, 8 soldiers, two civil servants and eight crew members.

Also on board 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 plane was carrying passengers to a New Year’s performance for Russian troops deployed in Syria.

The performance was scheduled to take place 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.

The first Syrian chemical weapons are leaving the country on a Danish ship.

The vessel left the northern Syrian port of Latakia on Tuesday, escorted by Russian and Chinese warships.

Removing the most dangerous chemicals is the first step of an UN-backed deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical arsenal.

A previous bid to collect the materials was aborted after Syrian officials failed to deliver the toxic chemicals to the collection point in Latakia.

The hazardous cargo is due to be taken to Italy, where it will be loaded onto a US Navy ship and shipped to international waters for destruction in a specially created titanium tank on board.

The mission is being run jointly by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

The agreement was brokered by the US and Russia after rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin was fired at three towns in the Ghouta agricultural belt around the Syrian capital Damascus on 21 August.

Hundreds of people were killed in the attacks.

The first Syrian chemical weapons are leaving the country on a Danish ship

The first Syrian chemical weapons are leaving the country on a Danish ship

Western powers said only Syrian government forces could have carried out the assault, but President Bashar al-Assad blamed rebel fighters.

In a statement on Tuesday, the UN confirmed that a small number of containers with “priority one chemical materials” were on board the Ark Futura cargo ship, one of two vessels in charge of collecting the materials.

They will wait in international waters for additional chemicals to be delivered to Latakia for collection.

A spokeswoman said the loading took only “a couple of hours”, but this delicate phase of the operation had been “months in the planning”.

The OPCW did not disclose what percentage of Syria’s toxic arsenal – around 1,300 tonnes of weapons and precursors – had been removed.

The toxic materials were supposed to have been removed by December 31st, but the deadline was missed because of heavy fighting and the presence of opposition groups along the main road between Damascus and Latakia.

The complete elimination of all chemical weapons material and equipment must be completed by June.

The “most critical” chemicals include about 20 tonnes of the blister agent sulphur mustard.

How the plan will unfold:

  1. The Syrian authorities are responsible for packing and safely transporting the chemical weapons from 12 sites across the country to the port of Latakia. Russia has supplied large-capacity and armored lorries, while the US has sent container drums and GPS locators.
  2. Russia will provide security for loading operations at Latakia, for which the US has supplied loading, transportation and decontamination equipment. China has sent 10 ambulances and surveillance cameras, and Finland an emergency response team in case of accidents.
  3. Denmark and Norway are providing cargo ships and military escorts to take the chemicals to an as yet unnamed port in Italy. Russian and China will also provide naval escorts.
  4. In Italy, the “most critical” chemical agents will be loaded onto the US Maritime Administration cargo ship, MV Cape Ray, to be destroyed by hydrolysis in international waters. Less-toxic chemicals will be shipped by Norwegian and Danish vessels for disposal at commercial facilities.

Israel has carried out a strike near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, a US official says.

The official said the strike targeted Russian-made missiles intended for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Latakia is a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an important port city where the Alawite community to which he belongs is concentrated.

Israel is widely reported to have carried out at least three air strikes in Syria so far this year.

While Israel rarely comments on specific operations, it has repeatedly said it would act if it felt Syrian weapons, conventional or chemical, were being transferred to militant groups in the region, especially Hezbollah.

Reports of the strike came as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said all Syria’s declared equipment for making chemical weapons had been destroyed, one day before a deadline.

Israel has carried out a strike near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia

Israel has carried out a strike near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia

Action by the OPCW was agreed following allegations, denied by the Syrian government, that its forces had used chemical weapons in civilian areas – and after the US and France threatened military intervention.

A US official said the Israeli strike took place overnight from Wednesday into Thursday.

Reports circulated on Thursday of explosions near Latakia, but the cause was not clear.

“Several explosions were heard in an air defense base in the Snubar Jableh area,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist network.

Neither Israel nor Syria have commented on the reports.

One unnamed US official told the Associated Press that the missiles targeted by Israel were Russian-made SA-125s.

Russia has been a key backer of President Bashar al-Assad’s, continuing to supply his government with weapons during the conflict in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad had promised to respond to any future strikes by Israel.

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The United Nations Organization says a video that appears to show Syrian rebels killing soldiers or pro-government militiamen could be evidence of a war crime.

The footage shows gunmen beating a group of prisoners cowering on the floor before opening fire at them.

It has been alleged that Islamist militants carried out the attack after seizing army checkpoints on Thursday.

Unconfirmed reports say troops have now quit all bases near the strategic northern town of Saraqeb.

The town lies near both the main Damascus-Aleppo highway and the highway linking Aleppo to the coastal city of Latakia – making it doubly strategic.

The army, meanwhile, continued its air strikes across Syria on Thursday.

In all, more than 150 people reportedly died in fighting, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based activist group.

The SOHR said that among the victims were more than 70 government soldiers, 43 civilians and 38 rebels.

The claim has not been independently verified.

In a separate development, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby would meet in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the Syrian crisis, the Arab League announced.

The alleged shootings took place after the rebels overran the strategic army checkpoints between on Thursday.

The video purportedly shows agitated rebels kicking and pushing the soldiers or pro-government militiamen, known locally as “shabiha”, to the ground inside one of the seized buildings. Shots are then seen fired into the cowering mass of bodies.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said it appeared that the victims “were no longer combatants and therefore, at this point, it looks very like a war crime”.

Spokesman Rupert Colville added that the video – if proved to be genuine – would almost certainly form part of a future prosecution.

Meanwhile, Amnesty said in a statement: “This shocking footage depicts a potential war crime in progress, and demonstrates an utter disregard for international humanitarian law by the armed group in question.”

No group has so far admitted carrying out the alleged killings.

However, a rebel fighter from Idlib province, Abu Abdul Rahim, told the Guardian that a Salafi-jihadist group was behind the killings, which he said had occurred in al-Nayrab, to the west of Saraqeb.

He said the Salafists of the Dawood brigade and Suqur al-Sham did not answer to any military council affiliated to the rebel Free Syrian Army.

For months, activists have reported similar summary executions by government forces virtually every day.

But there has been mounting evidence of similar tactics being used by some rebel groups too, although many have signed a code of practice banning such abuses.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier warned that radical Islamist fighters were trying to hijack the Syrian revolution.

The comments have drawn an angry response from some opposition leaders, who say that it is the failure of the outside world to support the uprising with practical help that has left the field open to the radicals.

The SOHR more than 36,000 people have been killed since protests against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011.

The SOHR is one of the most prominent organizations documenting and reporting incidents and casualties in the Syrian conflict. It says its reports are impartial, though its information cannot be independently verified.

Recent alleged rebel atrocities

• 22 June – Damascus accuses ‘terrorists’ of killing 25 villagers in northern Syria and mutilating their bodies

• 6 July – footage shows a rebel questioning a soldier before shooting him – location unknown

• 1 August – four apparent Assad loyalists are seen put against the wall and shot in public in Aleppo

• 14 August – rebels are shown in a video throwing dead bodies of government snipers from an Aleppo roof

• 17 September – armed opposition groups are accused by Human Rights Watch of torturing and summarily executing detainees in Aleppo, Latakia, and Idlib

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