BISHKEK (AFP) — A passenger jet belonging to an airline on a European blacklist crashed after take-off from the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, killing 65 people, officials said Monday.
Many foreigners perished in the crash of the Boeing 737 bound for Tehran that went down a few kilometres from Bishkek airport on Sunday evening.
There were 51 nationals from Canada, China, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkey among the 90 passengers, the Kyrgyz prime minister's office said Monday.
"According to the latest information 65 people were killed, 22 were hospitalised with various injuries and three returned home after receiving medical help," Prime Minister Igor Chudinov said at meeting to brief President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
Bakiyev ordered a national day of mourning for Tuesday.
The jet burst into flames during an emergency landing as it tried to get back to Bishkek's Manas airport late Sunday.
Transport Minister Nurlan Silaimanov asserted categorically that "this was not a terrorist attack."
Chudinov said the plane, built in 1979 and owned by Kyrgyz airline Itek Air, suffered a dramatic loss of pressure before making its emergency landing near the village of Dzhany-Dzher.
Itek Air is banned from entering European Union air space as part of a blanket ban on all Kyrgyz airlines from flying to the EU because of safety fears.
Officials said 11 Iranians survived, but the remaining foreigners died.
"The remaining foreigners on board the Boeing died. Their names are being checked as several corpses were received at the morgue without documentation," the prime minister's office said.
Survivor Ali Hazemi Longnedy told AFP he was travelling with his two sisters when the pilot announced that the plane was experiencing engine trouble just after take-off.
"Suddenly there was a fire and lots of smoke. My eyes were sore. It became very hard to breathe," he said from his hospital bed.
"Then I saw another Iranian escape by the plane's rear door. I ran and fell to the ground," he said. "We screamed for help. Luckily, my two sisters also survived."
The crash, just 10 minutes after the plane took off, was the worst in the former Soviet republic in Central Asia since it gained independence.
Kyrgyz reporters on the scene said body parts were strewn across a large area surrounding the plane wreckage.
"Everywhere around the site there were body parts 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 ringing incessantly, people were crying, could not speak, yelled at us, demanding to know how we allowed such a tragedy. There were children there, young athletes, and their parents' grief was overwhelming," an airport information service employee told AFP.
There were heartbreaking scenes at the city morgue, an official there 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 added.
The rescue operation was joined by firefighters and medical staff from a US-run air base which shares Manas international airport, a base spokeswoman said.
Iran's ambassador to Kyrgyzstan visited the injured at Bishkek hospitals.
Iranian television said an Iranian plane had landed in Bishkek to evacuate the injured.
The plane's black box flight recorder has been recovered and was being examined by investigators, the prime minister told the president.
Earlier Chudinov said the plane had no known safety problems and passed a safety check one month previously.
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 disaster came four days after a Spanair flight crashed in Madrid killing 154 people.
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