September 10, 2011 / 4:29 PM / 8 years ago

Crowds mourn Russian ice hockey players after crash

YAROSLAVL, Russia (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Russians, led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, paid their last respects on Saturday to the victims of a plane crash that wiped out almost an entire ice hockey team.

People gather at Arena-2000, home venue of ice hockey team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, as they pay their last respects to the victims of Wednesday's plane crash, in Yaroslavl September 10, 2011. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

Like other mourners, Putin walked silently past a line of coffins and placed red carnations beside them at a memorial ceremony in the stadium where Lokomotiv Yaroslavl played, about 250 km (150 miles) north of Moscow.

Local security officials said more than 100,000 people attended the service in Yaroslavl, despite heavy rain.

“We’ve lost so many young people ... I am a father, it’s difficult for me to talk about it,” said a middle-aged man, tears rolling down his cheeks. “And look, the weather is crying as well.”

Only two people survived Wednesday’s crash, which killed 36 players and team officials and seven crew when the plane came down on a river bank in a village near Yaroslavl shortly after takeoff. The cause has not yet been determined.

Grieving fans have turned the team’s stadium into something of a shrine, leaving flowers, candles and team scarves there.

Some fans have criticized a decision to continue a Kremlin-sponsored conference in the stadium the day after the crash.

Memorial services were also held on Saturday in the Belarussian capital Minsk, where the team had been flying for a match, as well as in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, the Latvian capital Riga and the Czech capital Prague.

Among international victims were three Czech world champions, a Swedish goalkeeper, a Slovak forward and a Canadian coach. Many had played around the world, including in North America’s National Hockey League.

It was Russia’s eighth fatal plane crash this year and has highlighted mounting air safety problems.

Medvedev called for urgent measures to improve safety when he visited the crash site on Thursday before attending the conference at the team stadium.

He demanded a rapid reduction in the number of domestic airlines and said Russia may have to buy foreign aircraft to improve safety.

Opposition parliamentarians have called for the resignation of Transport Minister Igor Levitin and the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, has asked him to address it on September 20.

Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Janet Lawrence

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