By Alissa de Carbonnel
MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian airliner split into pieces after it slid off the runway and crashed onto a highway outside Moscow on Saturday, killing four of the 12 crew on board and leaving smoking chunks of fuselage on the icy road.
The crash during peak holiday travel ahead of Russia's New Year's vacation, which runs from Sunday through January 9, cast a spotlight on Russia's poor air-safety record despite President Vladimir Putin's calls to improve controls.
Television footage showed the Tupolev Tu-204 jet, broken into pieces, with smoke billowing from the tail end and the cockpit broken clean off the front.
One witnesses told state channel Rossiya-24 they saw a man thrown from the plane as it rammed into the barrier of the highway outside Vnukovo airport, just southwest of the capital, and another described pulling other people from the wreckage.
"The plane split into three pieces," Yelena Krylova, chief spokeswoman for the airport, said in televised comments.
An Emergency Services spokesman said four people died of injuries after the crash and four others were in hospital. Police said 12 crew members were on board, but no passengers.
"The plane went off the runway, broke through the barrier and caught fire," police spokesman Gennady Bogachyov said.
The mid-range Tu-204 was operated by the Russian airline Red Wings and travelling from the Czech Republic, Krylova said.
Rubble from the crash was scattered across the highway and the plane's wings were torn from the fuselage, witnesses said.
"We saw how the plane skidded off the runway ... The nose, where business class is, broke off and a man fell out," a witness, who gave his name as Alexei, said. "We helped him get into a mini-bus to take him to the hospital."
Another witness described pulling four people from the wreckage when he arrived at the scene before emergency service workers. "We could not get the pilot out of the cockpit but we saw a lot of blood," he told Rossiya-24.
Russian investigators said preliminary findings pointed to pilot error as the cause of the crash.
Russia and other former Soviet republics had some of the world's worst air-traffic safety records last year, with a total accident rate almost three times the world average, the International Air Transport Association said.
A passenger jet crashed and burst into flames after takeoff in Siberia in April, killing 31 people, and an airliner slammed into a riverbank in September 2011, wiping out the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl ice hockey team in a crash that killed 44 people.
The Russian-built Tu-204, which is comparable in size to a Boeing 757 or Airbus A321, is a Soviet-era design that was produced in the mid-1990s but is no longer being made. There have no major accidents previously reported with Tu-204s.
(Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Steve Gutterman and Angus MacSwan)
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