BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Rescuers on Saturday said they had recovered the bodies of three US crew members whose refuelling plane crashed in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan shortly after taking off from a base that serves as a hub for military operations in Afghanistan.
The KC-135 Stratotanker with a crew of three — believed to be carrying dozens of tonnes of fuel — exploded and broke up midair before crashing around 98 kilometres (61 miles) from the capital Bishkek on Friday.
The bodies of two crew members were found around 7:00 am (0100 GMT) near the site of the crash and later Tolonbek Arpatchiev, a member of the government team probing the accident, said that the third body had also been recovered.
The charred fragments of the bodies were found close to the nose of the plane, a few kilometres from the main crash site, an emergency situations ministry spokeswoman, Anara Mambetaliyeva, told AFP.
The remains of the crew, who have yet to be named, have been transported back to the aircraft’s US base, the Manas transit centre, close to the Kyrgyz capital, officials said.
The US side was working to identify the remains, while around 50 rescuers continued to search for the plane’s black box flight recorder, Emergency Situations Minister Kubatbek Boronov told journalists.
Transport and Communications Minister Kalykbek Sultanov said that if necessary the Kyrgyz investigators would call on specialists from the US Air Force and the Manas transit centre for help with their probe.
Kyrgyz investigators will make public their preliminary findings in three to four days, Sultanov said.
US officials were also scouring the scene and gathering the scattered pieces of the plane.
“The whole area has been sealed off by the Americans. They are working with the plane wreckage and collecting it,” a district official, Kanat Davletov, told local radio.
An emergency situations ministry official said that a technical fault was currently seen as the likeliest explanation for the crash.
Some local media reports focused on stormy weather conditions when the plane took off for Afghanistan.
The plane was trying to avoid a storm front, the former Kyrgyz civil aviation chief, Alexander Nastayev, told local media, citing air traffic controllers.
The base at Manas, which hosts about 1,500 US troops and contractors, is key to the US campaign in Afghanistan. It is used to ferry troops into the country, refuel warplanes and evacuate wounded soldiers.
It opened in 2001 and the current lease on the base expires in 2014, an arrangement that has been a cause of friction between Washington and the ex-Soviet Central Asian state.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev has vowed that the country will fulfil its obligations on the lease but wants Manas to serve only as a civilian passenger hub from next year.
The incident comes less than a week after a civilian cargo plane crashed shortly after take-off at the US-run Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, killing all seven crew members on board.