A Tupolev aircraft crashed in Iran on Wednesday on its way to Armenia killing all 168 people on board and one senior Iranian official said the plane had caught fire in the air after suffering technical problems.
In the worst crash in Iran for six years, the Russian-built Caspian Airlines plane ploughed into farmland with 153 passengers and 15 crew on board, gouging a deep smoking crater in the ground.
The aircraft, travelling to Armenia’s capital Yerevan from Tehran, crashed near the northwestern city of Qazvin shortly before noon (0730 GMT) after about 16 minutes in the air.
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.
Weeping relatives and friends gathered at Yerevan airport where a notice on a wall listed people who were on board. Iran is home to thousands of ethnic Armenians. Doctors treated relatives for shock and heart problems.
Fina Karapetian, an Armenian in her 30s, said her sister and two nephews, 11 and 6, were on board the crashed plane. “I heard everyone in the aircraft has died. What will I do without Armen and Vahe,” she said, before fainting.
“The Tupolev plane has been totally destroyed and the corpses, unfortunately, have been totally burnt and destroyed,” Qazvin police commander Massoud Jafarinasab told the semi-official Fars News Agency.
Iranian television showed footage of debris and body parts and a smoking trench with mangled pieces of metal scattered around. Smoke rose from the site as police and bystanders gathered around.
Senior Iranian provincial official, Sirous Saberi, said the aircraft had had technical problems and tried to make an emergency landing. “Unfortunately the plane caught fire in the air and it crashed,” he told Fars.
A witness said he had seen the plane’s left engine on fire in the air, state broadcaster IRIB said.
But state radio said the pilot had made no mention of any technical problem in a taped conversation with a control tower.
“On board the plane there were 151 adults, 2 children and 15 crew members,” Caspian Airline’s representative in Yerevan Arlen Davudyan told Reuters at the airport.