c.2013 New York Times News Service
MOSCOW — A U.S. tanker airplane used for midair refueling over Afghanistan crashed soon after departure Friday from the Manas airport in the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan, according to the U.S. Air Force.
A crew of five people was flying the airplane, a KC-135 Stratotanker, according to AKI Press, a Kyrgyz news agency that cited an unidentified official in the Ministry of Emergency Situations. The agency quoted a local official who said that an open parachute lay on the ground near the burning debris, but that no one was attached to it.
The plane crashed in a hilly area near the town of Kara-Balta a few minutes after takeoff. The Air Force unit based at Manas, the 376th Expeditionary Wing, released a statement Friday evening saying that the status of the crew was unknown and that the cause of the crash was under investigation. The Air Force statement did not say how many people had been on board.
A Kyrgyz government spokesman also confirmed the crash. AKI Press cited witnesses as saying that the airplane broke into three parts in the air. They reported hearing an explosion.
The news agency cited a local official, Daniyar Zhanykulov, a deputy head of a Kyrgyz political party, who said that the open parachute was on the ground near the site, but police officers and firefighters found no sign of the crew.
“It’s a horror, what’s happening,” Zhanykulov said, according to the report. “There are no signs of people. The prosecutor and police blocked off the area. And the rubble of the plane is burning. This is a mountain area, and fire trucks cannot work.”
By early evening in Kyrgyzstan, local websites had posted photographs of wreckage, scorched grass and gray-colored airplane parts that were apparently scattered over a wide area.
A fleet of KC-135 tanker planes had been based at Manas airfield since 2001. The dusty, provincial airport is also used for civilian flights and as a way station for most troops coming into and out of Afghanistan.
The U.S. tanker fleet carries jet fuel to U.S. fighter jets that fly over Afghanistan. The Pentagon buys the jet fuel through intermediaries from petroleum-rich former Soviet countries, including Russia and Kazakhstan.
The logistics of supplying the U.S. troops in Afghanistan are a constant strain on resources and can be very risky. Most troops are scheduled to be withdrawn from the country by 2014.
On Monday, seven people were killed when a civilian Boeing 747 cargo plane crashed soon after taking off from Bagram Air Base near Kabul, Afghanistan. Military officials said the cause was being investigated, but there had been no enemy activity in the area at the time.