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Total's French CEO killed in Moscow plane crash

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Total's French CEO killed in Moscow plane crash
Total CEO Christophe de Margerie shakes hands with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Photo: Ria Novosti/AFP
08:33 CEST+02:00
The CEO of French oil company Total, Christophe de Margerie died in a plane crash at a Moscow airport after his private jet struck a snow plough on takeoff. Russian investigators said the driver of the snow plough was drunk.

"It has been established that the driver of the snow plough was in a drunk state," the investigating unit said in a statement, adding that a preliminary theory was that "an error by air traffic controllers and the actions of the snow plough driver" were to blame for the deadly accident.

Total confirmed the death of the 63-year-old de Margerie early on Tuesday.

"The Total Group confirms with great and profound sadness that its CEO Christophe de Margerie died last night shortly after 10pm (Paris time) in an air crash at Vnukovo airport in Moscow following a collision with a snow removing machine," Total said in a statement.

Just hours earlier De Margerie had met Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at his country residence outside Moscow to discuss foreign investment in Russia, Vedomosti business daily reported.

Statements honoring De Margerie immediately began pouring in from French and Russian leaders.

"De Margerie devoted his life to French industry and the development of the Total group," said a statement from French presidential palace. "He had risen through the ranks of leading global companies. De Margerie defended with talent the excellence and success French technology abroad. He had great ambitions for Total."

In a telegram sent to French President Francois Hollande, published by the Kremlin, Putin said he was "shocked by the news" after De Margerie's jet crashed into a snow plough at Moscow's Vnukovo airport, killing all on board.

Putin asked Hollande to "pass on the most sincere condolences and words of sympathy" to De Margerie's family and loved ones.

He praised the 63-year-old oil boss as "an outstanding French entrepreneur who originated many major joint projects that formed the basis of many years of fruitful cooperation between Russia and France in the energy sector."

"In Christophe de Margerie, we lost a real friend of our country, whom we will remember with the greatest warmth," Putin said.

The Vnukovo airport said in a statement that the Falcon Dassault business aviation jet crashed as it prepared to take off for Paris with one passenger and three crew on board.

"During run-up at 11:57 pm, there was a collision with the airport's snow plough. As a result of the crash, the passenger and all the crew members died," the airport's statement said.

The airport said that visibility was at 350 metres at the time of the accident. Moscow saw its first snowfall of the winter on Monday.

The airport said its rescue services were sent to the scene and "immediately started extinguishing a fire that had broken out".

TASS news agency also said four people had died.

"There was one passenger registered on the plane, French citizen Christophe de Margerie. The three crew members were also French citizens. They all died," the TASS news agency cited an aviation source as saying.

A spokeswoman for transport investigators, Tatyana Morozova, told Interfax that three men and a 39-year-old woman died .

The crash is being investigated by the Interstate Aviation Committee, which probes all Russian air crashes, and experts from Russia's federal aviation agency, the airport said.

The head of the federal aviation agency, Alexander Neradko, has taken charge of the investigation, the Interfax news agency reported.

The plane's black boxes have been removed, airport spokeswoman Yelena Krylova told RIA Novosti news agency.

Moscow transport investigators said in a statement that they had opened a criminal probe into breaches of aviation safety rules causing multiple deaths through negligence, which carries a maximum jail term of seven years.

French experts were set to take part in the investigation, Interfax reported, citing a source in the rescue operation.

"The French side is informed. They should send experts. This will happen very soon," the source was cited as saying.

The airport was closed temporarily to clear up the scene of the accident but resumed normal operations at 1:30 am.

De Margerie had been chief executive of Total, Europe's third largest oil company, since 2007.

He had worked for the company for 40 years, spending his entire career there, and was known affectionately as the "Big Moustache" because of his prominent facial hair which was his most striking feature.

The son of diplomats and business leaders, he was the grandson of Pierre Taittinger, founder of Taittinger champagne and the luxury goods dynasty.

Married with three children, he was known for his good humour but De Margerie had steered Total through tough times including defending the company against allegations of corruption during the UN "oil-for-food" programme in Iraq.

Highly regarded within the oil industry, De Margerie admitted the allegations had taken their toll on the company.

"Most people, when they speak of Total do not know what it is, but know it is not good," he said in 2009.

Total said in September that work on constructing a new natural gas liquefaction plant in Yamal in northwestern Siberia was continuing despite EU and US sanctions on Russia over its role in the conflict in Ukraine.

Total is developing the plant with Novatek of Russia and Chinese oil group CNPC.

Total also announced in May that it had signed a deal with Russia's second biggest oil firm Lukoil to explore and develop shale oil deposits in western Siberia. But De Margerie told the Financial Times last month that the project had been halted due to Western sanctions.

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