BEIJING (AP) — A plane that crashed in northern China may have been North Korean, state media reported Wednesday. A witness said the plane plowed into an apple orchard, killing its pilot on impact.
South Korean media said the plane, believed to be a fighter jet, appeared to have run out of fuel and might have been piloted by a defector.
China's official Xinhua News Agency said the aircraft crashed Tuesday afternoon in Lagu, a village in Liaoning province about 90 miles from the North Korean border. It cited government officials as saying the plane "might be" North Korean, and said the pilot died.
The report said China was communicating with North Korea about the matter.
A man who lives in Ersonggou village, about three miles from the crash site, said he and many other local residents saw the plane flying low over the area before it crashed into an apple orchard.
"The engine was making a very strange noise and it was flying in a very weird way, with it's head up and rear down," said the man, who would give only his surname, Ning. "It looked like a piece of scrap iron flying in the sky."
He said he heard from other villagers that the aircraft had flown from North Korea and that the pilot was killed on impact.
South Korea's Yonhap News Agency cited an intelligence official whom it did not identify as saying the pilot may have been attempting to defect to Russia.
Yonhap said South Korean military radar spotted the aircraft taking off from a base in the northeastern border city of Shinuiju. It cited an unidentified South Korean military source as saying the plane was believed to be a MiG-21 jet and that it ran out of fuel.
South Korea's Defense Ministry said it was trying to confirm the Yonhap report.
A duty officer at China's Foreign Ministry spokesman's office had no information about the incident.
China takes pains not to openly criticize or embarrass North Korea's government, and might be reluctant to announce a failed North Korean defection, even if it involved a military plane straying far into its territory.
Though China is widely considered to be reclusive North Korea's closest ally, ties have been strained in recent years, particularly since the North has resisted an international effort led by Beijing to persuade it to give up its nuclear weapons program.
In recent years, thousands of North Koreans facing hunger and repression at home have made the risky journey into China, with many seeking eventual asylum in South Korea. Many swim across the Yalu river or walk across it in winter.
More than 18,000 North Koreans have arrived in the South since the Korean War, according to South Korea'sUnification Ministry. The war ended with a 1953 cease-fire that has never been replaced with a peace treaty.
Associated Press researcher Zhao Liang in Beijing and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.