TEHRAN – A Tupolev aircraft crashed in Iran on Wednesday on its way to Armenia killing all 168 people on board and one senior Iranian official said the plane had caught fire in the air after suffering technical problems.
In the worst crash in Iran for six years, the Russian-built Caspian Airlines plane plowed into farmland with 153 passengers and 15 crew on board, gouging a deep smoking crater in the ground.
The aircraft, traveling to Armenia's capital Yerevan from Tehran, crashed near the northwestern city of Qazvin shortly before noon (0730 GMT) after about 16 minutes in the air.
Eight members of Iran's national junior judo team and two coaches were among the dead as well as a former Iranian MP representing Iran's Armenian minority and, reportedly, the wife of the head of Georgia's diplomatic mission in Iran.
Weeping relatives and friends gathered at Yerevan airport where a notice on a wall listed people who were on board. Iran is home to thousands of ethnic Armenians. Doctors treated relatives for shock and heart problems.
Fina Karapetian, an Armenian in her 30s, said her sister and two nephews, 11 and 6, were on board the crashed plane. I heard everyone in the aircraft has died. What will I do without Armen and Vahe, she said, before fainting.
The Tupolev plane has been totally destroyed and the corpses, unfortunately, have been totally burned and destroyed, Qazvin police commander Massoud Jafarinasab told the semi-official Fars News Agency.
Iranian television showed footage of debris and body parts and a smoking trench with mangled pieces of metal scattered around. Smoke rose from the site as police and bystanders gathered around.
Senior Iranian provincial official, Sirous Saberi, said the aircraft had had technical problems and tried to make an emergency landing. Unfortunately the plane caught fire in the air and it crashed, he told Fars.
A witness said he had seen the plane's left engine on fire in the air, state broadcaster IRIB said.
But state radio said the pilot had made no mention of any technical problem in a taped conversation with a control tower.
On board the plane there were 151 adults, 2 children and 15 crew members, Caspian Airline's representative in Yerevan Arlen Davudyan told Reuters at the airport.
Fifteen or sixteen minutes after take-off the plane fell near the Iranian city Qazvin about 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of Tehran, he said, adding it was a Tu-154 and the cause of the crash was not clear nor had the black box been found.
It's been a major disaster with pieces of aircraft spread over an area of 200 sq meters, a fire brigade official said.
There was an explosion which left an indentation 10 meters deep in the ground. There was nothing we could do. We tried to put out the fire as best we could, he told state television.
Caspian Airline's Davudyan said around 20-25 passengers were Armenian citizens. Iran is home to some 100,000 ethnic Armenians, many of whom frequently use the flights between Tehran and Yerevan to visit relatives in Armenia.
An official from Georgia's embassy in Yerevan was on board and the wife of the head of its diplomatic mission in Tehran, Gocha Gvaramadze, was also believed to be on the plane, an official from Georgia's Embassy in Armenia told Rustavi-2 TV.
A boarding card belonging to a Japanese citizen was found at the crash site, IRNA said.
Air safety experts have said Iran has a poor record, with a string of crashes in the past few decades -- many involving Russian-made aircraft.
U.S. sanctions against Iran have prevented it from buying new aircraft or spares from the West, forcing it to supplement its aging fleet of Boeing and Airbus planes with aircraft from the former Soviet Union.
It was the third deadly crash of a Tupolev Tu-154 in Iran since 2002 and the deadliest crash since 2003 when an Ilyushin Il-76, also Russian built, crashed into an Iranian mountain.
In September 2006, 29 people were killed when an Iran Air Tour Tupolev 154 passenger plane caught fire on landing in the northeastern city of Mashhad. In 2002, all 118 people aboard were killed when an Iran Air Tours Tupolev 154 crashed near the western city of Khorramabad.
In February 2003, an Iranian Ilyushin-76 troop carrier crashes in southeastern Iran killing all 276 Revolutionary Guard soldiers and crew aboard.
Tehran-based Caspian Airlines was set up in 1993 and flies an all-Tupolev fleet linking Iranian cities and also routes to the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine and Armenia.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran, Hasmik Mkrtchyan in Yerevan, Margarita Antidze in Tbilisi and Jon Hemming, Jason Neely in London; Writing by Fredrik Dahl and Peter Millership; Editing by Louise Ireland)