Rescuers still trying to reach wreckage of Afghan airliner

Nato rescue workers and hundreds of police were trying to reach the wreckage of an Afghan airliner on Sunday, three days after it collided with a snow-covered mountain in an accident that is believed to have killed all 104 people on board.

Nato helicopters spotted the tail and other debris from the Boeing 737-200 east of the capital on Saturday. Deep snow and heavy cloud prevented search teams from reaching the crash site, about 3 300m up Chaperi Mountain, but officials believed no one had survived.

On Sunday, the clouds lifted enough for Nato helicopters to try to land Slovenian mountain rescue teams, but it was unclear if they were successful. An Associated Press photographer saw two helicopters hovering near the crash site.

Alliance spokesperson Major Karen Tissot van Patot said the snow at the crash site had been up to 2m deep, and that another 50cm had fallen overnight.

Temperatures on the mountain fell to about minus 12 degrees Celsius overnight.

“The landing zone is very difficult due to the steepness of the terrain as well as the snow,” Tissot van Patot said.
Nato ground troops were also close by but had yet to find a way to reach the wreckage, she said.

General Mahbub Amiri, an Afghan police commander coordinating the search from a village at the foot of the mountain, said he had 300 men on one side of the peak and 50 on the other, and that the two groups would try to converge on the plane.

The Boeing 737-200, flown by Kam Air, post-Taliban Afghanistan’s first private airline, vanished from radar screens on Thursday afternoon as it approached Kabul airport in a snowstorm, sparking a massive search for the 96 passengers and eight crew, at least 24 of them foreigners.

If all are confirmed dead, officials said it would be the war-wracked nation’s deadliest air disaster.

There is no indication that the scheduled flight, which was arriving from the western Afghan city of Herat, was hijacked or brought down by a bomb.

Afghan Transport Minister Enayatullah Qasemi said on Saturday that the cause of the crash remains a mystery and that United States Department of Transportation experts and representatives of the foreign victims will help investigate.

But the airline believes the plane turned away from Kabul airport toward the Pakistani border city of Peshawar in search of an easier landing. The wreckage was found on the mountainside about 30km east of Kabul.

“Maybe the pilot was not familiar with the area and he was in a lower position than he should have been,” said Feda Mohammed Fedayi, Kam Air’s deputy director. “The only reason we can suggest at this time is the weather.”

Kam Air began flying in November 2003, and its flights on leased Boeing and Antonov planes are popular with wealthy Afghans. The airline is also used by aid and reconstruction workers.

However, there have been concerns about the safety of its planes as well as those of state-owned Ariana Airlines, and about the approach through the mountains that ring Kabul.

United Nations staff are banned from using Kam Air or Ariana. However, a spokesperson confirmed on Saturday that an Italian architect working for the world body was on board. Italian authorities said another Italian civilian and a navy captain also took the plane.

Beth Lee, a US embassy spokesperson, said it is believed six Americans were on board. She declined to give details. Management Sciences for Health, a non-profit group based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has already confirmed three of its staff took the plane.

Nine Turkish passengers, as well as the eight crew—six Russians and two Afghans—are also believed dead.

Qasemi said there were passengers from “at least five” foreign countries on the plane, suggesting that the expatriate total could rise.

Afghanistan’s most recent commercial crash was on March 19 1998, when an Ariana Airlines Boeing 727 slammed into a peak south of Kabul, killing all 45 passengers and crew.—Sapa-AP

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