The plane broke up on a highway short of the airport

Moscow - A passenger jet crashed in heavy fog and burst into flames late Monday on a highway in northwestern Russia, just short of a runway whose high-intensity lights had failed, killing 44 people, officials said. Eight people survived the crash.

The Tu-134 plane, belonging to the RusAir airline, was en route from Moscow to the city of Petrozavodsk, an Emergencies Ministry spokeswoman, Oksana Semyonova, told The Associated Press.

Her ministry said in a website statement that 44 people were killed. Eight survivors, including a 10-year-old boy and a female flight attendant, were hospitalized in critical condition in Petrozavodsk.

Semyonova said the plane went down on its final approach to the airport in Petrozavodsk, making a crash landing about a mile short of the runway, breaking apart and then bursting into flames. It was unclear if the plane had attempted to land on the road, or just happened to fall there, she said. Petrozavodsk is in Karelia province, near the Finnish border, about 400 miles northwest of Moscow.

Authorities had no immediate explanation for the accident, but the Interfax news agency quoted the airport director Alexei Kuzmitsky as saying there were "unfavorable weather conditions."

Compounding the pilot's troubles was the failure of the runway's high-intesity illumination, which is supposed to be deployed at times of low visibility, Alexei Morozov, deputy head of the Interstate Aviation Committee, told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

A RusAir representative who declined to give his name told The Associated Press that the plane was in good working order and that the weather conditions, although tricky, "weren't critical."

Photographs on the ministry website showed fragments of metal strewn across a road as a thick fog hung over woodland in the background. A landing gear jutting out from the ground was the only recognizable plane part.

The plane was carrying 52 people, including nine crew members, Semyonova said. Russian news agencies said Russian Premier League soccer referee Vladimir Pettay and a Swedish citizen were among the victims.

The Karelia branch of the Emergencies Ministry said radio contact with the pilot was lost at 11:40 p.m. local time (7:30 p.m. EDT, 1940 GMT). The black box flight data recorders have been recovered, the news agencies said.

The accident occurred on the eve of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's planned appearance Tuesday at the Paris Air Show to support dozens of Russian firms seeking sales contracts.

Russia and the other former Soviet republics have some of the world's worst air traffic safety records, according to the International Air Transport Association. Experts blame weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality for the poor safety record, leading to emergency landings being reported with alarming regularity.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski was among 96 people killed when his Tu-154 crashed in heavy fog while trying to land near the western city of Smolensk in April 2010. In 2006, three crashes - two in Russia and one in Ukraine - killed more than 400 people.