Defense Minister Oleksander Kuzmuk admitted today that Ukrainian forces were responsible for last week's crash of a Russian airliner and apologized to the victims and their relatives.

"We know we are involved in the accident," Kuzmuk said, bursting unexpectedly into a news conference conducted by his subordinates. "I offer my deep apologies to the relatives and friends of those who died in this accident."

All 78 crew members and passengers, mostly Russian-born Israelis, died when the Tu-154 exploded at high altitude and crashed into the Black Sea on Oct. 4.

Ukraine, whose military at first denied responsibility, said Friday that a missile from military exercises on the Crimean peninsula could have caused the disaster.

Neither Kuzmuk nor other high-level military officials could explain how one of their missiles missed the drone it was targeting and zeroed in on the Russian plane. Volodymyr Tkachyov, commander of the Ukrainian antiaircraft forces, cited a possible technical glitch.

Kuzmuk conceded that it would take a long time for Ukraine's military forces to regain trust after the disaster. He apologized to Ukrainians for damaging the country's reputation.

Vladimir Rushailo, head of Russia's Security Council, was quoted by the Interfax news agency today as saying the S-200 missile exploded 15 yards above the plane. He said the pilot and navigator of the Russian aircraft, which originated in Israel and was bound for Novosibirsk in Siberia, died immediately after the explosion. A Russian newspaper reported Thursday that the pilot knew the plane had been hit and that medical evidence showed many passengers were alive when the plane began its plunge.

Only 15 bodies have been found during an air and sea search operation hampered by bad weather. The flight recorders remain on the seabed more than 3,300 feet below the surface.

The incident marks the second time in 18 months that Ukraine's armed forces have lost control of a live missile. Last year, four people were killed in the town of Brovary when a rocket hit their apartment building. The Defense Ministry denied responsibility for several days, until rescue workers found missile parts in the rubble.

Defense Minister Oleksander Kuzmuk, right, at a news conference with antiaircraft chief Volodymyr Tkachyov, could not explain why a missile targeted Russian plane.