VILNIUS - Four military experts arrived at the Zokniai airbase from Ukraine on Sep. 24 with special equipment to help decode flight information from the Russian fighter Su-27's black box, while Russian authorities waited for the release of the pilot, currently under house arrest in Lithuania.
The data is crucial to the investigation, as it could reveal why the combat fighter, which had been flying from St Petersburg to Kaliningrad on Sep. 15, deviated from its course and subsequently crashed.
A preliminary investigation has led many to believe that the warplane went down due to a failure of navigational equipment.
The crash also cost Lithuania's Air Force commander Colonel Jonas Marcinkus his career. On Sep. 26, the defense minister dismissed Marcinkus based on information provided by special services, including the State Security Department (see story Page 5).
Days earlier, experts excavated the last of the fighter's four air-to-air missiles. Small pieces were found as deep as 10 meters.
The excavation began a week after Russian diplomats asked their Lithuanian colleagues to return the wrecked Su-27 and its pilot to Russia, saying that the matter was not under the Baltic state's jurisdiction.
The Prosecutor General's Office cancelled all restrictions for Major Valery Troyanov, the pilot of the crashed warplane, and let him stay with his wife at a Vilnius hotel. The pilot is being held under house arrest as a suspect for violating international flight regulations.
Not surprisingly, Lithuania's refusal to hand over the jet's wreckage and Troyanov has ignited the Kremlin's propaganda machine in full capacity.
The Russian media have already spun rumors about Lithuania, hoping to tarnish the country's image.
"Lithuanians Provoke International Scandal" and "Lithuanians Get Cheeky" are just some of the headlines to have appeared in Russian media, followed by spurious statements.
Finally, Russia's Air Force commander Vladimir Mikhailov ridiculed NATO's air defense capabilities on Sept. 26. "We, of course, hadn't planned to probe NATO defenses, but they turned out to be good for nothing," he told the Channel One television station. "The much-praised German pilots were on duty there 's drinking beer or doing I don't know what 's but when they were scrambled, the plane had already hit the ground," he said.
Gediminas Kirkilas, Lithuania's minister of defense, said that he was not surprised by such headlines.
Meanwhile, a number of articles published in the Lithuanian press suggested that Troyanov could have imitated an accident or even crashed on purpose. Media reports claim that the pilot is an "expert" in airspace violations. Troyanov once demonstrated how to imitate a foreign air-space violation during a joint exercise among CIS anti-aircraft defense forces, a show that Belarusian TV journalists filmed in October 2004.
According to the training scenario, Troyanov was asked imitate a violation of Belarusian air space.
The defense minister declared this version as doubtful.
"Based on the latest information, today I can declare with responsibility that the provocation version can almost certainly be discarded. Today we, the commission, do not have any facts to prove it," Kirkilas said after a briefing last week.
Some analysts said that Lithuania's recent behavior was motivated by a decision not to complicate relations with Russia. Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas earlier said that "all fears which surfaced after the crash were mere speculation, and that such rumors may have a negative effect on bilateral relations."
The Cabinet is currently in the middle of talks with two Russian oil companies to find a new strategic investor for Mazeikiu Nafta, (See story on Page 6.)
Speaking of the recurring violations of Lithuanian 's and Estonia's 's airspace by Russian and Belarusian planes, Kirkilas indicated that political reasons might be underlying such incidents.
"The Baltic states have already achieved their goals 's membership in NATO and the EU. This is a very important example for Ukraine, Moldova and the southern Caucasus. So the political groups opposed to the expansion of democracy eastwards 's not the official government of Russia 's might employ such violations to diminish the significance of the membership of the Baltic states in NATO and the EU. These are my assumptions," Kirkilas said.
Brazauskas said he was confident that current tensions between Russia and Lithuania regarding the accident would not affect bilateral relations.
President Valdas Adamkus met with top officials to discuss the investigation's latest findings.