AN IRANIAN airliner carrying Muslim pilgrims collided with a military plane and exploded yesterday, killing all 132 people on board just minutes after they had left Tehran's main airport, civil aviation authorities said.
Witnesses said passengers were blown out of the plane after the nose of the military plane crashed into the tail of the passenger jet, Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency (Irna) reported.
Most of the wreckage of Flight 962 fell in a 500sq metre (600sq yard) open area on a military base, Irna said. It missed the heavily populated areas that have sprouted up around Tehran's notoriously dangerous Mehrabad airport.
The airliner was bound for the holy city of Mashhad when the accident occurred at 10.15am in clear skies. All 119 passengers and crew of 13, including the Russian pilot, were killed, Irna quoted Iran's civil aviation organisation as reporting.
One witness said that two military jets were flying near the Russian-built Tupolev airliner when one of them hit its tail. Two explosions were heard, the sky filled with smoke, and passengers and pieces of the plane tumbled to earth, Irna reported.
Mehrabad airport serves both military and civilian aircraft. Pilots have complained frequently of near-collisions, especially during Iran's eight-year war with Iraq when military flights were more numerous.
Mashhad, a city of about 500,000 people, is the capital of Khorasan province, not far from Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. The city is home to the tomb of Reza, the eighth imam of Shia Islam and is one of Iran's most important religious shrines.
It was not clear how many of the passengers were pilgrims, although flight reservations to Mashhad are booked by pilgrims for months in advance.
Technicians at Iran Air complain about the practice, imposed by the higher clerical hierarchy, of leasing planes from Russia, because of the lack of standard safety levels and maintenance regulations for which Aeroflot and the Russian civil aviation authorities are known.
The Tupolev passenger plane which crashed had been chartered by Iran Air Tours, apparently from Aeroflot which, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has split into numerous republican and regional airlines.
The technical director of Aeroflot in Russia, Gennady Anikaev, said the plane was not from his republic's fleet but could have come from Uzbekistan or one of the other Central Asian states.
Although pilot error seems to have been behind yesterday's tragedy, there are concerns about the standard of maintenance of planes being rented out mostly to the Third World by nations of the former Soviet Union. A plane which crashed recently in India had come from Uzbekistan.
Mr Anikaev said Russia still had strict controls but 'I cannot speak for the other republics. Anything could be happening there, especially when you consider that some, like Tajikistan, are going through civil war.'
The leasing business is very profitable and about 50 aircraft from the former Soviet Union are currently on hire. About half belong to Russia, which has sent planes for up to five years to China, Turkey and various African countries. A year's rent for a Tupolev-154 is dollars 2m ( pounds 1.38m).
However, the money is a drop in the ocean compared with the needs of the deeply troubled airline which was once the biggest in the world, employing 600,000 people and running 3,000 aircraft. Now it is beset by a host of problems, including constant shortages of fuel and spare parts. On domestic flights, it is not unusual for passengers to be kept waiting at airports for three or four days to board 30-year-old planes where passengers stand in the aisles as on crowded city buses.
IN OUR 9 February coverage of the Tehran airport crash the previous day we reported an Aeroflot official as saying that the plane could have come from Uzbekistan or one of the other Central Asian states. Uzbekistan Airways has asked us to point out that it did not own or have any connection with the crashed airliner and further that, as an internationally recognised airline which flies regularly to and from Heathrow, it is required to, and we are assured that it does, comply with all international safety and maintenance standards.