The RussAir Tu-134 tried to stage an apparent emergency landing in poor weather conditions just before midnight on a motorway two kilometres (1.25 miles) from its destination of Petrozavodsk airport in the Karelia region.
But the 30-year-old plane broke up into fragments and erupted into flames as it made contact with the ground, the Karelia branch of the emergencies ministry said in a statement on its website.
|Photo illustration of a Tu-134 aircraft. Forty-four people were killed and eight badly injured when a plane crashed onto a highway and burst into flames in northern Russia, narrowly missing an inhabited area, officials said Tuesday|
It was unclear why the plane was forced to attempt a landing on the highway but investigators pointed to a possible failure with the landing systems at Petrozavodsk, including high-intensity landing lights.
"The plane sustained a hard landing two kilometres from Petrozavodsk," the emergencies ministry said. "Forty-four people were killed and eight people injured."
Images published on the ministry's website showed wreckage strewn across the road and an inhabited area perilously close in the background. The plane, flying from Moscow's Domodedovo airport, carried 43 passengers and nine crew members.
"The scene is terrible. It's carnage. It was a miracle that fragments of the fuselage did not hit houses on the edge of the village of Besovets," a source in the aviation industry told the Interfax agency. "Corpses are strewn over the highway," the source added.
The head of the Karelia region, Andrei Nelidov, has travelled to the scene of the crash and will later hold an emergency meeting including prosecutors and the FSB Security Service.
Russia's Karelia region, which lies close to the border with Finland, is a picturesque area of lakes and forests hugely popular with Russian tourists for the summer holidays.
The spokeswoman of the emergencies ministry Irina Andrianova told the Interfax news agency that seven of the eight injured were "in an extremely serious condition" and all the casualties were receiving treatment for burns.
The lifenews.ru website said a child named as Anton Terekhin, 10, was among the survivors. The head of the emergencies ministry's regional operations, Shamstudin Dagirov, told Russian news agencies that a Swedish citizen was killed.
The head of the Petrozavodsk airport Alexei Kuzmitsky told Interfax that weather conditions around the airport at the time were "unfavourable" and Andrianova said there had been heavy fog and rain at the time of the crash.
A possible cause of the crash however could be the failure of ground-based systems to guide the plane in to landing, the deputy head of the inter-state air commission (MAK) which investigates air accidents in the ex-USSR, Alexei Morozov, told the ITAR-TASS news agency.
"The high-intensity landing lights on the runway that should be switched on in bad weather conditions were not working," he said. The plane's black boxes have been located.
RussAir officials told Russian news agencies that the plane, made in 1981, had been completely checked before take-off and there had been no technical issues with the aircraft.
"The main question is why the Tu-134 did not start its landing on the runway but on the motorway," a RussAir official told Interfax.
The spokesman of the Russian Investigative Committee Vladimir Markin told news agencies that a criminal probe was being opened into neglect of air transport rules.
Russia's aviation industry remains blighted by repeated accidents involving its ageing fleet of planes, with the Soviet-era Tupolev jets having a particularly poor safety record.
In April last year, a Tu-154 carrying Polish president Lech Kaczynski and other top officials came down in fog near the Russian city of Smolensk killing all 96 people on board.
Meanwhile, in September, a Tu-154 plane made a miraculous emergency landing on a derelict airstrip in Russia's remote Komi region after its electrical systems failed midflight.