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Rescuers locate Afghan plane crash area

Afghan and NATO rescuers today located the area where an Afghan passenger plane crashed with 43 people on board, including three Britons and an American, an official said.

world Updated: May 18, 2010 15:35 IST

Afghan and NATO rescuers on Tuesday located the area where an Afghan passenger plane crashed with 43 people on board, including three Britons and an American, an official said.

More than 24 hours after the plane lost radio contact over the treacherous Hindu Kush mountains, the prospect of finding survivors appeared slim as anguished relatives gathered at the foot of the mountain-pass near Salang.

The ageing Pamir Airways Antonov 24 turboprop plane was en route from the northern province of Kunduz to Kabul when it came down in bad weather, although officials said it was too early to rule on the cause of the crash.

"We have managed to locate the crash area," Yalda Natiq, head of communications at the transport ministry, said.

"It is in northern Salang but due to fog, bad weather and poor visibility the reconnaissance plane and helicopters now cannot pinpoint the wreckage," she added. The area is one of harsh mountain terrain.

Asked whether signals from the plane's black box had been picked up, Natiq said: "The systems show where the crash area is and helicopters are flying over the area to locate the wreckage now."

On the ground, Afghan police and locals familiar with the area are climbing the mountain again for the second day to search for the wreckage.

President Hamid Karzai expressed grief over the crash.

"Cloud, fog, lightning and rain does not allow the search in some areas," he told reporters.

"We hope to be able to find the victims of this incident and hand them over to their families," he said.

Rescuers were forced to suspend the search operation in the snow-capped mountains overnight, owing to bad weather. Freezing temperatures would make conditions extremely difficult for any survivors.

A highway task force, responsible for clearing snow from the Salang mountain pass -- the main road from Kabul to northern Afghanistan -- reported hearing a blast at around the time the plane went missing, police said.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), fighting against the Taliban, dispatched a plane and two helicopters to the area, but also acknowledged that poor weather conditions hampered the search.

According to the passenger manifest of the plane, six of those on board were foreigners and the rest Afghans. The British embassy confirmed that three Britons were on the plane, and the US State Department that there was one American.

A Turkish aid organisation, the IHH, said two of its employees -- both Turkish men -- were on board the plane, but there was no immediate confirmation from the Turkish foreign ministry.

Acting transport minister Mohammadullah Batash said the aircraft lost radio contact 37 minutes after taking off on a return journey to the capital -- normally around an hour's flight -- at around 9:07 am on Monday.

The minister went to the suspected crash site in the Salang mountains to personally oversee the search for the wreckage.

"We cannot rule out any of the usual causes behind crashes -- which could be bad weather, technical error, thunder and lightning or even terrorist attacks," Batash said.

According to its website, Pamir Airways was founded in May 1995 and is the oldest private airline in Afghanistan.

Commercial aviation incidents are rare in Afghanistan, where travel by road can be hazardous due to the nearly nine-year Taliban insurgency.

In February 2005, a Boeing 737 operated by private company Kam Air crashed in the mountains on the outskirts of Kabul during heavy snow. There were 104 people on board, including two dozen foreigners. There were no survivors.

First Published: May 18, 2010 15:31 IST