BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan (AFP) — A passenger plane bound for Iran crashed shortly after takeoff from the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek on Sunday, claiming the lives of 68 people onboard, the health ministry said.
The Boeing-737 with 90 people onboard went down a few kilometres (miles) from Bishkek's Manas airport after the plane suffered a dramatic loss of cabin pressure, said Prime Minister Igor Chudinov.
"According to updated information, 68 were killed" of the total 83 passengers, Chudinov's spokeswoman Rosa Daudova said, adding that "24 Kyrgyz, 52 Iranians, one Turkish national, two Canadians, three Kazakhs and one Chinese" were on board.
Earlier, health ministry spokeswoman Yelena Bayalinova told AFP that 65 passengers were killed, 22 injured and three are missing.
The plane was owned by Itek Air, a private Kyrgyz company, that is on the European Union blacklist of airlines banned from flying in EU airspace.
Chudinov said all seven crew members were among the survivors of the crash, the worst in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan since the Central Asian state gained independence.
"The plane took off and then it lost pressure," Chudinov told reporters. It was bound for Tehran, according to airport officials.
The pilot made an emergency landing in a field not far from the runway and the plane caught fire, he said.
Civil aviation officials said it went down at around 20:40 pm (1440 GMT), just ten minutes after takeoff.
There were 51 foreigners among the passengers, including Iranian, Turkish, Chinese and Canadian nationals, according to the prime minister.
Kyrgyz reporters on the scene said body parts were strewn across a large area surrounding the plane wreckage.
"Everywhere around the site there were bodyparts of the unfortunate passengers, you could hear screams and moans, there was a horrible stench of burning bodies," a witness told a local radio station.
"Our three telephones were calling incessantly, people were crying, could not speak, yelled at us, demanding to know how we allowed such a tragedy. There were children there, young sportsmen, and their parents' grief was overwhelming," an airport information service employee told AFP.
Heartbreaking scenes reached their apex at the city morgue, where remains were brought for identification, a local official said.
"People were kissing what remained of their loved ones. Even we, who should be used to anything, could not look at this and turned away not to begin crying too," he confided.
It was the worst plane crash in recent history in Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic that also boasts Central's Asia biggest and most modern airport.
Rescue teams and firefighters were dispatched to the crash site near the village of Dzhany-Dzher where the plane was engulfed in flames, officials said.
US military officials at a nearby base sent firefighters and medical staff to the scene, said Aygul Karemshakova, a press spokeswoman for the US base in Kyrgyzstan.
The prime minister said the plane had no known safety problems.
"The Boeing was produced in 1979, was in good condition, was checked a month ago and had an extended warranty," he said.
Iran's ambassador to Kyrgyzstan visited the injured at Bishkek hospitals as rescuers continued a frantic search for survivors under the cover of darkness.
"Mostly the passengers have combined injuries -- burns, broken bones and bumps," a doctor at Bishkek hospital said.
There were reports that the plane was owned by the Iranian company Aseman and leased to Itek Air, but a spokesman for the national aviation agency in Tehran denied the information.
"The plane belongs to Kyrgyz airlines," said Reza Jafarzadeh, spokesman for the agency, the official Irna news agency reported.
A Spanair flight bound for the Canary Islands crashed in Madrid on August 21, killing 154 people.
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