Kerman, Feb 20, IRNA -- Strong winds and bad weather Thursday hampered search for the bodies of 302 people who were crushed to death aboard a Russian-made Ilyushin aircraft Wednesday evening near this southeastern Iranian city.
More than 600 special mountain climbers as well as relief and search workers scoured the Sirch mount, partly in snow-capped slopes, only to find some of the bodies and part of the plane's debris.
Kerman governor, Mohammad Ali Karimi, said snowstorm and gusts of strong winds on the peak had complicated retrieval of torn bodies. "Weather condition in the crash site is such that visibility beyond one meter for climbers is impossible," he said.
Several helicopters, sent to the region for search and relief overflights, have failed to land on the crash site. Karimi said a road was being built with bulldozers to facilitate access to the bodies.
"Our main focus presently is on the construction of a road so that the forces can head to the most possible uppermost part of the mountain on cars," he added.
The Kerman governor said the cause of the crash still remained unknown and the possibility of finding the ill-fated plane's black box, which contains radio contacts between the pilot and air traffic controllers, was remote because of the bad weather.
Twenty kilometers from the crash site, members of the bereaved families, huddled in mourning and waited in distress for emerging news. Three days of mourning was declared in Kerman.
The plane was a Russian-built Ilyushin-76, operated by the Islamic Revolution's Guards Corps (IRGC), whose personnel were returning for a public holiday from the southeastern city of Zahedan near the drug-infested Pakistan border. Eighteen people on board were the crew.
The aircraft apparently crashed into the Sirch mountain, which is more than 3,500 meters high, and exploded one kilometer off the Shahdad tunnel which cuts through the mountains.
The crash occurred at 18:24 (14:54 GMT) some 35 km to the southeast of Kerman. Karimi said the pilot had lost contact with air traffic controllers at the Kerman airport shortly before preparing to land in a bad weather.
Head of the control tower at the Kerman airport said strong winds blew at the time of descent which coincided with the landing of a Tupolev airplane.
"In his last radio contact, the pilot said 'I am trying to approach the airport; maybe the weather condition will get better'. At that moment, the contact was lost," the Kerman governor said.
The crash came as Iran prepared to celebrate Thursday the Eve of Qadir, which marks Prophet Mohammad's appointment of first imam of Shi'ite Muslims, Imam Ali (AS), as his spiritual heir.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sent a condolence message to IRCG chief, Brigadier-General Yahya Safavi, saying "the tragic event of the plane crash, in which a group of my beloved children lost their lives, deeply grieved me."
He also called on related officials to launch a "thorough investigation" into the accident. President Mohammad Khatami called for a "serious follow-up" of the incident and "quick publication" of the investigation results.
The disaster is among the most tragic in the Iranian aviation history.
In 1988, 290 people were killed after USS Vincennes warship, located in Iranian territorial waters, shot down a civilian aircraft of the Islamic Republic, which was flying within the commercial air corridor. US claimed those aboard the warship had taken the plane for a sleek F-14 jet.
Iran's aviation fleet mostly uses American-made Boeings, purchased before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. US unilateral sanctions against the Islamic Republic, however, have forced the country to turn to Russian-made aircraft.
On February 12, 2002, a Tupolev-154 crashed on jagged mountains when it was on a flight to Khorramabad from Tehran, killing all 119 on board.
Twelve days later, an Ilyushin-76, on a flight to the central city of Isfahan from the northeastern city of Mashhad with 230 people on board, made an emergency landing shortly after take-off when a fire broke out in the plane.
No one was injured in the incident, but six passengers taken by panic were rushed to hospital and the fire was extinguished on time by the airport's fire fighters.
In May, 2002, a Russian-built Yak-40 plane on its way to northern Iran from Tehran crashed with 30 people on board, including the then roads and transport minister, Rahman Dadman. No one survived the disaster.
In December, 44 people were killed after and Antonov An-140 crashed into mountains near Shahin-Shahr in the central city of Isfahan. It was carrying Ukrainian and Russian specialists to inaugurate a new aircraft that Antonov had built in Iran.
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