A passenger airliner careered off the runway at Russia's third-busiest airport and partly onto a highway while landing on Saturday, broke into pieces and caught fire, killing at least four people.

Officials said there were eight people aboard the Tu-204 belonging to Russian airline Red Wings that was flying back from the Czech Republic without passengers to its home at Vnukovo Airport.

Freelance reporter Jessica Golloher told CBC News on Saturday there were eight crew members on board — four of whom are listed in "critical condition."

The pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and a flight attendant were killed, according to the Emergency Situations Ministry.

"They do a lot of charter flights and regular service within Russia, also the Middle East and Eastern Europe," said Golloher from Moscow.

"Unfortunately, Russia has seen a number of deadly air disasters within the last two years and hundreds of people have died."

Golloher said air safety experts have blamed a lack of safety standards and checks and poor pilot training for the crashes.

Second Tu-204 incident since Dec. 20

Emergency officials said in a televised news conference that four people were killed and another four severely injured when the plane rolled off the runway into a snowy field and partly onto an adjacent highway, then disintegrated. No collisions with vehicles on the major, multilane highway were reported.

The plane's cockpit area was sheared off from the fuselage and the tail section partly torn away.

The crash occurred amid snow and winds gusting up to 15 m/s, but other details were not immediately known. A spokesman for Russia's top investigative agency, Vladimir Markin, said initial indications were that pilot error was the cause.

The state news agency RIA Novosti cited an unidentified official at the Russian Aviation Agency as saying another Red Wings Tu-204 had gone off the runway at the international airport in Novosibirsk in Siberia on Dec. 20. The agency said that incident, in which no one was injured, was due to the failure of the plane's engines to go into reverse upon landing and that its brake system malfunctioned.

On Friday, the Aviation Agency sent a directive to the Tupolev company's president calling for it to take urgent preventive measures.

The plane that crashed Saturday took off from Pardubice airport in the Czech Republic. Jan Anderlik, the director of the company that operates the airport, told Czech public television that the plane underwent a regular technical check before takeoff and no problems were discovered.

Prior to Saturday's crash, there had been no fatal accidents reported for Tu-204s, which entered commercial service in 1995. The plane is a twin-engine midrange jet with a capacity of about 210 passengers.

The Red Wings airline is one of the holdings of Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, who also owns the British newspapers The Independent and the Evening Standard.

Vnukovo, on the southern outskirts of Moscow, is one of the Russian capital's three international airports.

With files from CBC News