Weather hampers search for missing Afghan jetliner

Saturday, February 5, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan -- As temperatures plunged overnight, fears grew Friday that no one would be found alive after an Afghan passenger jet carrying 104 people, including three Americans, disappeared from radar screens during a snowstorm near the mountain-ringed Afghan capital.

NATO forces suspended their ground and air search for the night as darkness closed in, and planned to resume looking today.

The Kam Air Boeing 737-200 took off Thursday from the western city of Herat bound for Kabul, but was unable to land because of poor visibility. The airline initially said the plane was diverted to neighboring Pakistan, but officials there said it never reached their airspace.

Transport Minister Enayatullah Qasemi said the pilot last contacted the Kabul control tower about 3 p.m. Thursday to ask for a weather update.

Bagram Air Base, the U.S. military base north of Kabul with overall responsibility for Afghan airspace, cleared the plane for landing, but moments later it disappeared from radar screens.

Afghanistan's NATO peacekeeping force sent helicopters and ground teams to scour an area southeast of the city, where officials said the plane was last seen Thursday. But they returned to base empty-handed amid freezing fog.

A Turkish Foreign Ministry official in Ankara, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Turkish military officers in Kabul reported wreckage had been found southeast of Kabul. The country's air force is in charge of the Kabul airport as part of the NATO peacekeeping mission.

But NATO and Afghan officials denied the report. French Lt. Col. Patrick Poulain, a spokesman at NATO headquarters in Kabul, said helicopters had failed to even pick up a signal from the aircraft's rescue beacon.

He held out little hope that anyone would be found alive Saturday.

"With the snow storm of last night, it would not be easy to survive," he said.

Officials planned to widen their search when it resumed early Saturday.

Kabul is surrounded by towering, frigid peaks, a hazard that usually forces commercial aircraft to be grounded during bad weather. Veterans of the battle-scarred airport describe hair-raising approaches and close calls, and the area near the Pakistani border is so remote that officials suspect militants, including Osama bin Laden, have hidden there since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

When clouds lifted for several hours Friday, hundreds of Afghan troops were sent to Khaki Jabar, a district with few roads and steep ridges rising to more than 13,000 feet. An Associated Press photographer saw two helicopters flying over the area and a column of German armored vehicles moving through knee-deep snow along a mountain road.

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi said Afghan troops participating in the search had also given up for the night.

"They couldn't find a single piece," he said. "Tomorrow we will search a wider area."

Kam Air was the first private airline in post-Taliban Afghanistan and made its maiden flight on the Kabul-Herat route in November 2003.

Its mainly domestic flights using leased Boeing and Antonov planes are popular with aid and reconstruction workers, as well as those wealthy enough to avoid long journeys over bumpy roads.

The airline said the Boeing was carrying 96 passengers and six Russian and two Afghan crew members.

Three of those on board were believed to be American women working for Management Sciences for Health, a nonprofit group based in Cambridge, Mass., said William Schiffbauer, a company representative in Kabul.

Turkey's government said Friday that nine Turks were aboard the missing plane. Six were employees of a Turkish road contractor, Gulsan-Cukurova, which is working on a U.S.-funded road project in the west, company manager Kurtulus Ergin said.

In Rome, the Italian Defense Ministry said one of the passengers was Capt. Bruno Vianini, who was assigned to a military-sponsored reconstruction project.

The last major plane crash in Afghanistan was on Nov. 27, when a transport plane under contract to the U.S. military crashed in central Bamiyan province, killing three American soldiers and three American civilian crew.

The most recent commercial crash was on March 19, 1998, when an Ariana Airlines Boeing 727 slammed into a mountain near the area being searched Friday, killing all 45 passengers and crew.

At the Kam Air office in Kabul, relatives hoped for a miracle, while bracing for the worst.

Ahmad Shah came to ask about his brother, Qari Hashmat, a 40-year-old merchant with four children who had gone to Herat to arrange the delivery of a new car. He said he had yet to tell his brother's wife that her husband was on the plane.

"I'm still hoping to receive a call from some country saying the plane has landed," Shah said. "But in my heart, I feel that something has happened."

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