'Technical problem' blamed in Iranian airliner crash

A technical problem appears to be the cause of the crash of an Iranian airliner that killed 168 people, an official says.

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A technical problem appears to be the cause of the crash of an Iranian airliner which burst into flames and plunged into farmland, killing all 168 people on board, a top official said today. "The pilot could probably not be blamed for this crash and we think it was likely due to a technical problem," Ahmad Majidi, head of the transport ministry's crisis unit, was quoted by the Mehr news agency. Iranian officials said three black boxes from the Russian-built Tupolev airliner have also been found, but that two were seriously damaged. "Because of the severity of the accident two systems linked with the black box have been damaged in such a way that the tapes have come out of the boxes and scattered on the ground," Mr Majidi said.

The plane caught fire in mid-air en route to Armenia and plunged into farmland outside a village in north-west Iran on Wednesday just 16 minutes after take-off, killing all 153 passengers and 15 crew members. Five Russian experts are due in Tehran on Friday to probe the cause of the crash of the Caspian Airlines Tupolev-154, news agencies reported. The plane had undergone a safety check in Russia last month and had received a flight licence until 2010, Majidi said. Witnesses said the plane was ablaze before it smashed into the ground and exploded near the city of Qazvin. Television images showed a vast smoking crater littered with debris of plane parts, shoes and clothes.

"There is not a single piece which can be identified. There is not a single finger of anybody left," one relief worker said. The head of the Qazvin disaster management centre, Mohammad Ali Ahani, said the remains of the victims had been transferred to Tehran. "The families of the victims can inquire about their lost ones at the Tehran coroner's office, but it is impossible to identify the victims," he told the Mehr news agency. In Yerevan, the deputy head of the Armenian civil aviation organisation, Arsen Pogossian, said the pilot had attempted an emergency landing after an engine caught fire. Witnesses spoke of seeing the plane on fire before it plunged to earth.

"I saw the plane when it was just... above the ground. Its wheels were out and there was fire blazing from the lower parts," witness Ablolfazl Idaji told the Fars news agency. "It seemed the pilot was trying to land and moments later the plane hit the ground and broke into pieces that were scattered far and wide." Many relatives vented their anger at Caspian Airlines, saying its planes could not be trusted. "I hate these planes. With so much travel between Iran and Armenia, there have to be better planes," said Alex, 24, an Iranian of Armenian origin who lost around dozen friends and relatives in the crash, including children.

The plane is a Soviet-designed medium-range three-engine aircraft and was a best-seller for the Russian aircraft industry between 1972 and 1994. *AFP