Passenger Plane Crashes in Afghanistan

An airplane with 44 people on board has crashed in the mountains of Afghanistan, an Afghan government spokesman said Monday. The plane crashed near the Salang Pass, north of Kabul. The plane was carrying 38 passengers and six crew members when it crashed en route from Kunduz to Kabul, said Raz Mohammad Alami of the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation.

Several non-Afghans were on the plane, which has not yet been found, said Zemarai Basharay, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry. At least three of them were British nationals, according to a Foreign Office spokeswoman. One American also was on board, according to a State Department in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity pending notification of the family.

One Afghan passenger on board worked for GTZ, a German state aid organization. “One of our national staff members was on board this aircraft,” Andreas Clausing, head of Germany’s development agency in Afghanistan, told Reuters.

Nangialai Qalatwal, a spokeswoman for the Afghan Ministry for Transportation and Civil Aviation, said two Americans were on the flight. But an official at the State Department in Washington told The Associated Press that only one American was on the plane. Mr. Qalatwal said that two Italians were also aboard, as well as several Afghan women and children.

“I can confirm that an aircraft carrying 38 passengers plus five crew has crashed somewhere in Salang Pass,” Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said. (BBC) The BBC’s Mark Dummett in Kabul said it is far too early to predict what might have caused the crash.

The plane, operate by Pamir Airways, a private Afghan airline, was traveling from Kunduz in northern Afghanistan to the capital. Myar Rasoli, the head of Kabul airport, said air traffic controllers’ last contact with the plane was when it was about 55 miles (85 km) north of Kabul. He said there was no distress call from the plane.

After receiving tips from local residents who heard a loud bang, Afghan authorities rushed to Salang Pass, a major route through the Hindu Kush mountains that connects the capital to the north.Ismail, a 35-year-old snowplow driver who lives in a village near the pass, said he was taking a morning break when he heard the sound of a crash. “It was as if there was an accident of two vehicles. I didn’t know what it was,” said Ismail. (The Associated Press)

The government’s minister of transport and aviation and his deputy went there to investigate. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force has sent a plane to the region, said spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks, but the search has been hampered by rain and adverse weather conditions. In addition, the force sent two helicopters to the area, and others were on standby at Bagram Airfield and Kabul International Airport, the NATO-led force said. The Afghan Defence Ministry also ordered the nation’s air force to be on standby. Ambulances were dispatched to the pass.

When low cloud cover and fog hampered the aerial search, about 70 rescue workers began ascending the mountains on foot to find the wreckage. The foot patrol, which included the governor of Parwan province, descended the mountains about an hour later after authorities began to suspect that the plane had traveled farther south toward Kabul before going down. “The only way they can search is on foot,” said Col. Nabiullah, who is in charge of the southern portion of the Salang Pass. “The helicopters can’t get in.” (The Globe & Mail)

Alami said authorities now believe the plane crashed about 12 miles (20 km) north of the capital, possibly in the Ghorband district of Parwan province. He said the governor had asked officials in the province’s dozen districts to help locate the wreckage.

Capt. Robert Leese, a spokesman for the NATO air unit assisting in the search, said the U.S. plane got within four miles (seven kilometres) of the suspected crash site, but had to turn back because of bad weather. “The fog was so bad you couldn’t tell where the mountain began and the fog ended,” Leese said. (The Associated Press)

“We haven’t found the crash site yet,” Mr. Qalatwal said. “The weather is very bad – there is heavy snow and heavy fog.” (New York Times)

Jaweed Stanikzai, the brother of a passenger on the plane, told The Associated Press at the Kabul airport that he last talked to his brother at 8 a.m. “He told us that he was on the plane and could not talk, but would call us as soon as he could,” he said. “Nobody is providing us any information about the incident.” (The Associated Press)

Kabul-based Pamir Airways started operations in 1995. It has daily flights to major Afghan cities and also operates flights to Dubai and Saudi Arabia for the hajj pilgimage. According to its website, Pamir uses Antonov AN-24 type aircraft on all its Kunduz-to-Kabul flights. Pamir’s chief executive officer, Amanullah Hamid, said the plane was just inspected about three months ago in Bulgaria. The An-24 is a medium-range twin-turboprop civil aircraft built in the former Soviet Union from 1950 to 1978. Although production there ceased more than three decades ago, a modernized version is still being made in China. It is widely used by airlines in the developing world due to its rugged design, ease of maintenance and low operating costs. It is designed to operate from remote, unprepared airstrips with austere navigational aids. A total of 143 have so far been lost in all sorts of accidents, according to the Aviation Safety Network’s statistics.

While several plane crashes have occurred in Afghanistan in the past few years – most of them military aircraft – the last crash with fatalities occurred in September 2006, when a British Royal Air Force plane crashed about 12.6 miles (20 km) west of Kandahar, according to the website of the Aviation Safety Network, which maintains a database of crashes. Fourteen people were killed in that crash. In 2005, 104 people were killed when Kam Air flight 904 struck a mountain while approaching Kabul in poor visibility, according to the network.

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