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Criminal probe ordered in Russian crash that killed Total CEO

Total SA CEO Christophe de Margerie addresses reporters during a news conference in Paris on Feb. 11, 2011.
(Christophe Ena / Associated Press)

Russian investigators have opened a criminal probe into the fiery crash that killed Total SA chief executive Christophe de Margerie and the three French crewmen piloting his private jet out of a Moscow airport, officials announced on Tuesday.

A spokesman for the Russian Investigative Committee said it was apparent that “criminal negligence” caused the crash of the French-made Dassault Falcon 50 as it attempted to take off from Moscow’s Vnukovo airport just before midnight on Monday.

The jet, on which de Margerie was the only passenger, struck a snowplow as it lifted off, causing it to burst into flames and crash, killing all four on board, Russian news agencies reported.

The snowplow driver, who was uninjured, was found to be drunk at the time of the accident and has been taken into custody, Tatyana Morozova of the Investigative Committee told journalists in Moscow.

Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said it was clear the accident was the result of “criminal negligence.”

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“It is already obvious that the cause of the events was not at all a horrific, tragic confluence of circumstances,” Markin said, accusing airport managers of casting the crash as the result of bad weather or pilot error.

Russia Today television quoted Markin as saying that “there is a possibility that a number of airport staff will be suspended from carrying out their duties pending criminal investigation.”

Air traffic control directives were also being reviewed because an intern was in charge of coordinating taxiing at the time of the French jet disaster, the RIA Novosti news agency reported, citing an unidentified Vnukovo airport official.

De Margerie, 63, was a critic of Western sanctions imposed against Russia for its role in separatist violence in eastern Ukraine that has taken more than 3,700 lives over the past six months. The French oil company executive lambasted the cutoff of Moscow trade and financial institutions as a blow to the global economy, not just Russia’s.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent condolences to French President Francois Hollande on the death of a businessman with whom he had close and cordial relations, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Putin praised the Total CEO for being behind “the many major joint projects that have laid the basis for the fruitful cooperation between Russia and France in the energy sphere for many years.”

De Margerie had worked for Total for 40 years, joining the company during the 1974 oil embargo that put the future of the company in doubt, he recalled in a 2007 interview with Le Monde.

Total Secretary-General Jean-Jacques Guilbaud said the company’s board would meet soon to consider a successor to De Margerie. The company called for a minute of silence in tribute to the late CEO at 2 p.m. Paris time at its offices worldwide, Guilbaud said.

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