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Pak air force chief killed in crash

Taulanj (Pakistan), Feb. 20 (Reuters): The commander of Pakistan’s air force, Air Chief Marshal Mushaf Ali Mir, his wife and several senior officers were among 17 people killed when their plane crashed today.

Air force spokesman Air Commodore Sarfraz Ahmed Khan called the crash of air force Fokker F-27 turboprop about 27 km from the town of Kohat an accident. All those aboard died.

State-run Pakistan Television said the crash in the northwest of the country was caused by “technical reasons”, but did not elaborate. Khan told a news conference the exact cause of the crash would have to be determined by a board of inquiry.

“It was absolutely a routine flight for a routine activity. The weather was fit for flying,” he said. Asked if sabotage was a possibility, he replied: “It is premature to say anything about the reason and I sincerely request you to refrain from speculative analysis.” Those killed included two air vice-marshals, two air force commodores and Mir’s wife Bilqees.

President Pervez Musharraf called the deaths a great national loss and Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali announced a day of national mourning tomorrow, when funerals for the dead are to be held.

The plane came down near the village of Taulanj, in an area of low hills about 27 km from the town of Kohat.

Villager Zarmast Khan said he heard explosions as the plane hit the ground. “I heard a bang, followed by another big bang, and then I saw flames and smoke on the hills,” he told Reuters.

The crash came after Pakistan experienced four successive days of heavy rain, some of the heaviest downpours in decades. Zarmast Khan said the weather was foggy at the time of the crash, but there was only a very light drizzle.

It was the worst military air crash since 1988, when Pakistan’s then-President and army chief, Gen. Mohammad Zia- ul-Haq, died in a mysterious crash in Punjab province.

The cause of that crash, which also killed the intelligence chief and the US ambassador, has never been established.

The body of the Fokker came down behind a small, rocky hill. A wing could be seen on a larger hill in the distance and smoke was rising from the site hours after the crash.

The aircraft had been on a flight from Islamabad, 116 km east of Kohat. Sarfraz Ahmed Khan, the air force spokesman, said it took off at 8 am (0300 GMT) and lost contact with the control tower 27 minutes later.

A senior air force officer said Mir’s wife had been travelling in her official role as chairwoman of the Pakistan Air Force Women’s Welfare Association. All the other dead were air force personnel, including eight crew, state television said.

The air force officer said the Fokker was used to transport VIPs.

The F-27 is a model that first flew in 1958 and continued to be built until the mid-1980s.

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