Updated: 05/04/2013 02:15 | By Agence France-Presse

US military plane crashes in Kyrgyzstan, crew missing

 A US military refuelling plane crashed Friday in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan shortly after taking off from a base that serves as a key hub for the campaign in Afghanistan, leaving the fate of its three American crew unknown.

US military plane crashes in Kyrgyzstan, crew missing

The debris of a crashed US KC-135 Stratotanker plane is seen on a hill near the villages of Chorgolo and Cholok-Aryk, 180 km from the Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, on May 3, 2013.

The KC-135 Stratotanker -- believed to be carrying dozens of tonnes of fuel -- crashed and burst into flames around 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, US and local officials said.

The cause of the disaster -- which took place around 2:55 pm local time (0855 GMT) -- was not immediately clear. Images from the scene showed ash and isolated pieces of wreckage were all that remained of the burned-out plane.

"A US Air Force KC-135 tanker aircraft crashed today in northern Kyrgyzstan. Emergency response crews are on scene," the aircraft's base, the Manas Transit Centre, said in a statement.

"The status of the crew is unknown," it added. "The cause of the crash is under investigation." A later statement confirmed there were three crew on board.

Kyrgyz officials said that search operations were being called off for the night and would resume in the morning. The interior ministry said that the site of the accident was under guard.

The Manas transit centre, which is situated at Bishkek airport, is key to US military operations in Afghanistan, used to ferry troops into the country, refuel warplanes and evacuate wounded soldiers.

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.

Kyrgyz Emergency Situations Minister Kubatbek Boronov told Kyrgyz media after rushing to the scene that it was possible that no trace of the crew would ever be found.

"I cannot exclude that the three American pilots could have died after being burned alive in the explosion," he said.

He told Kyrgyz radio that the plane's black box had been found but no human remains, which could have burnt up in the intense blaze.

"The remains of people have not been found at the crash scene. On board the plane were 60 tonnes of fuel."

The head of Kyrgyzstan's transport prosecutors, Kuvan Mamakeyev, told AFP from the scene that debris from the crashed plane could have scattered over a radius of up to 20 kilometres.

"In such a disaster, alas, it is unlikely that the crew managed to survive," he said.

He added that the US military attache had arrived in the remote area, which lies between the villages of Chorgolu and Cholok Aryk.

Some witnesses quoted by Kyrgyz media said that a pilot had apparently been seen parachuting out of the plane.

  "The preliminary information is that the pilot jumped out with a parachute. They have gone to look for him," the deputy local district chief Anatoly Ivannikov told local radio.

Another witness, Daniyar Satymkulov told local radio from the scene: "A parachute is lying there. But there are no people to be seen."

Witnesses told the Kyrgyz AKIPress news agency that they heard a buzz and then an explosion.

A local resident, Nurlan Derdenov, told local news website 24.kg that the plane "blew up in the air."

"School children managed to film it on cell phones. When the plane fell, it hit a high-voltage power line."

Photographs showed a broken-off wing of a plane lying on the ground with the US flag and the aircraft's identification number visible.

The US airbase opened in 2001 at Bishkek's Manas international airport and the current lease on the airbase expires in 2014, an arrangement that has been a cause of friction between Washington and Bishkek.

Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev has vowed that the country will fulfil its obligations on the lease of the base but wants Manas to serve only as a civilian passenger hub from 2014.

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