- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

TEHRAN | A Russian-made jetliner carrying 168 people nose-dived into a field after taking off from the Iranian capital Wednesday in a fiery crash that shredded the aircraft and killed everyone aboard - Iran’s worst air disaster in six years. Witnesses say the plane’s tail was on fire before it went down.

It was the latest in a string of deadly crashes in recent years that have highlighted Iran’s difficulties in maintaining its aging fleet of planes.

Iranian airlines, including state-run ones, are chronically strapped for cash, and maintenance has suffered, experts say. U.S. sanctions prevent Iran from updating its 30-year-old American aircraft and make it difficult to get European spare parts or planes as well. The country has come to rely on Russian aircraft, many of them Soviet-era planes that are harder to get parts for since the Soviet Union’s fall.

The Caspian Airlines Tupolev jet’s impact plowed a deep, long trench into agricultural fields outside the village of Jannat Abad, and the aircraft was blasted to bits. Flaming wreckage, body parts and personal items were strewn over a 200-yard area. Firefighters put out blazes from the crash, but smoke smoldered from the pit for hours after as emergency workers searched for data recorders and other clues to the cause.

Ali Akbar Hashemi, 23, was laying gas pipes in a house by the field when he saw the stricken jet overhead. He said the plane was circling in the air, flames shooting from its tail section.

“Then, I saw the plane crashing nose-down. It hit the ground causing a big explosion. The impact shook the ground like an earthquake,” Mr. Hashemi said by phone.

The Tu-154M jet had taken off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport on Wednesday morning and was headed to the Armenian capital Yerevan. It crashed at 11:30 a.m. about 16 minutes after takeoff outside Jannat Abad, near the city of Qazvin, about 75 miles northwest of Tehran, civil aviation spokesman Reza Jafarzadeh told state media.

The plane was carrying 153 passengers and 15 crew members, Mr. Jafarzadeh and the deputy chairman of Armenia’s civil aviation authority, Arsen Pogosian, said.

Most of the passengers were Iranians, many of them from Iran’s large ethnic Armenian community, as well as 11 members of Iran’s national youth judo team. Five Armenian citizens were among the dead, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry said, along with two Georgians, including a staffer from the Caucasus nation’s embassy in Yerevan.

The crash is Iran’s worst since February 2003, when a Russian-made Ilyushin 76 carrying members of the elite Revolutionary Guards crashed in the mountains of southeastern Iran, killing 302 people aboard.

Caspian Airlines is an Iranian-Russian private joint venture founded in 1993, with a fleet of Tu-154s built between 1989 and 1993. Russia produced 900 Tu-154s until production was halted in 1996.

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