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Airplane crash in Turkey kills all 75 people aboard

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

TRABZON, Turkey -- An airplane carrying Spanish peacekeepers back from Afghanistan crashed into a fog-shrouded mountain in northeastern Turkey and exploded Monday, killing all 75 people aboard.

Even after the crash, several blasts continued to go off amid the wreckage, apparently from ammunition on the flight exploding, sending twisted and charred metal flying over a wide area.

In the debris were soldiers' diaries, family pictures, CDs and a half-burned camera, witnesses said.

Most of the 62 Spanish soldiers on board had just finished a four-month peacekeeping mission in the Afghan capital, Kabul, working at the city's airport.

"This is an appalling tragedy, given that these soldiers were serving the interest of peace in a difficult mission in Afghanistan," NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson said during a visit to the Czech Republic.

The Russian-made YAK-42D, heading from Kabul to Zarazoga, Spain, was trying to stop for fuel in the Black Sea port of Trabzon. The plane approached Trabzon but was too high so it turned away, then crashed in the mountains about 470 miles northeast of the Turkish capital, Ankara.

Spain's Defense Minister Federico Trillo said that bad weather, including fog and strong winds, appeared to be to blame.

"It tried once again to land at the airport and they couldn't. On the second try unfortunately, the aircraft went against the mountain," Trillo said after arriving in Trabzon to help with the investigation and to coordinate the repatriation of bodies.

Radio contact with the plane was lost shortly before the crash, and Turkish aviation officials speculated that there may have also been a technical malfunction.

The airplane, which belonged to a charter company named Ukrainian-Mediterranean Airlines, was carrying 12 Ukrainian crew members and a Belarusian flight manager along with the Spanish peacekeepers.

Turkish soldiers evacuated the crash site after spotting unexploded grenades in the wreckage, CNN-Turk television reported.

"I had to wait 15 to 20 minutes for the explosions to end before I could get near to it," witness Sait Topcu told CNN-Turk.

Fifty-four of the Spanish peacekeepers were returning from Afghanistan, where many of them had been stationed at the airport, working on a road that would allow heavy fuel trucks easier access to the terminals.

They were Spain's first deaths in 17 months of peacekeeping in Afghanistan, according to Spanish news reports.

The plane stopped over in Kyrgyzstan and took on more passengers, including more Spanish peacekeepers, said Dutch Lt. Col. Paul Kolken, a spokesman for the peacekeeping force, known as ISAF.

At the military air base of Zaragoza, where the flight was headed, tearful relatives gathered and tried to comfort each other with the help of a team of counselors provided by authorities.

The Afghan Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing sympathy.

"The peacekeepers who perished in this tragic incident contributed toward world peace," the statement said. "International peacekeepers and military personnel based in Afghanistan perform a very valuable and noble mission to help maintain peace and security in the country and in combatting terrorism."

President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac also expressed their condolences to Spain in telephone calls to Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Spanish government officials said. Other messages of sympathy came from Portugal, Germany and Italy.

Trillo said that the Turkish military had recovered all the bodies, and that Spanish forensic experts who had also flown in would immediately start identifying them.

Gov. Aslan Yildirim of Trabzon suggested that identification would be difficult. "Most bodies are in pieces or dismembered," Yildirim said.

Turkish soldiers transferred the bodies to a refrigerated storehouse-turned-morgue near the crash site, private NTV television reported. The soldiers could not find the black box flight recorder at the site, which was still covered in fog.

"Our thoughts are with our comrades who were traveling to Spain, and our hearts go out to their families and friends," said the acting peacekeeper commander in Afghanistan, Dutch Brig. Gen. Robert Bertholee.

Spain contributes 141 soldiers to the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. Most are engineers who do construction work and destroy leftover explosives from two decades of ruinous war in Afghanistan.


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