Sirch (Iran), Feb. 20 (Reuters): Rescue teams battled strong winds and treacherous slopes today to find out why a Russian-made troop carrier slammed into a mountain killing 302 Revolutionary Guards in Iranís worst air disaster.
The death toll from yesterdayís crash was the highest in a string of air disasters in Iran involving Russian-made aircraft.
Officials said bad weather may have caused the crash in which all people on board, including 18 crew, died. The troops were returning from a mission near Iranís border with Pakistan to spend a long holiday weekend at home when their plane crashed into a mountainside in southeast Iran, they said.
The pilot of the Ilyushin-76 troop carrier complained of high winds shortly before losing radio contact. Officials said rescue teams were looking for the flight data recorder, which could shed light on the cause of the crash. But they said their efforts had so far been impeded by the poor weather and deep snow.
A large blackened circle surrounded by pure white snow could be seen from a distance marking the spot where the plane went down, close to the summit of the Sirch mountain chain which rises to over 3,000 metres .
Further down the slope, streams of cars ferried scores of distraught relatives from the nearby city of Kerman to temporary shelters set up by the Revolutionary Guards and Red Crescent. Groups of four or five sobbing Revolutionary Guards soldiers sat on the ground huddled together, mourning lost comrades.
A senior source close to the government said scores of high-ranking military officials were among those killed.
Formed shortly after Iranís 1979 Islamic revolution, the Revolutionary Guards force is independent of the regular army and played a key role in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Today it numbers about 120,000 personnel and answers directly to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.