Airliner crashes in Iran killing 168

Jet catches fire in latest tragedy to hit nation struggling with sanctions

A passenger airliner crashed in Iran yesterday on its way to Armenia, after catching fire mid-air and plunging into farmland, killing all 168 people on board just 16 minutes after take-off.

In the worst crash in Iran for six years, the Caspian Airlines plane left only scattered bits of incinerated metal and fragments of the bodies of 153 passengers and 15 crew around a deep smoking crater in the ground. The Russian-built Tupolev aircraft, travelling to Armenia's capital Yerevan from Tehran, crashed near the north-western city of Qazvin shortly before noon local time.

Eight members of Iran's national junior judo team and two coaches were among the dead as well as a former Iranian MP representing Iran's Armenian minority and, reportedly, the wife of the head of Georgia's diplomatic mission in Iran.

"I saw a finger of a passenger on the ground. There is no sign of the airplane, just small pieces of metal," said a Reuters witness. "I do not see even a complete leg or arm."

Weeping relatives and friends gathered at Yerevan airport where a notice on a wall listed people who were on board. Six Armenian and two Georgian citizens were on board, the deputy head of the Armenian civilian aviation authority, Arsen Poghosyan, told a media briefing at Yerevan airport. Two crew and 29 passengers were Iranian citizens with ethnic Armenian backgrounds, he said. Iran is home to some 100,000 ethnic Armenians, many of whom frequently use the flights between Tehran and Yerevan to visit relatives in Armenia.

Fina Karapetian, an Armenian in her 30s, said her sister and two nephews, 11 and six, were on board. "What will I do without Armen and Vahe?" she said, before fainting.

The Qazvin police commander told the semi-official Fars news agency: "The Tupolev plane has been totally destroyed and the corpses, unfortunately, have been totally burnt and destroyed."

A local official said the aircraft had technical problems and tried to make an emergency landing. "Unfortunately the plane caught fire in the air and it crashed," he told Fars. Another witness told the state broadcaster Irib that he had seen the plane's left engine on fire in the air. But state radio said the pilot had made no mention of any technical problem in a taped conversation with a control tower.

"It's been a major disaster with pieces of aircraft spread over an area of 200 square metres," a fire brigade official said. "There was an explosion which left an indentation 10 metres deep in the ground. There was nothing we could do. We tried to put out the fire as best we could."

An official from Georgia's embassy in Yerevan was on board and the wife of the head of its diplomatic mission in Tehran, Gocha Gvaramadze, was also believed to be on the plane.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ordered an inquiry into the crash. Air safety experts have said Iran has a poor record, with a string of crashes – many involving Russian-made aircraft. US sanctions against Iran have prevented it from buying new aircraft or spares from the West, forcing it to supplement its ageing fleet of Boeing and Airbus planes with old Soviet aircraft.

It was the third time a Tupolev Tu-154 has crashed in Iran since 2002 and the deadliest crash since 2003 when an Ilyushin Il-76, also Russian built, crashed. Tehran-based Caspian Airlines was set up in 1993 and flies an all-Tupolev fleet linking Iranian cities and also routes to the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine and Armenia.

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