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Witnesses: Plane on fire broke up in air

| Friday, May 3, 2013, 10:00 p.m.
AFP | Getty Images
The werckage of a KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling plane smolder near the villages of Chorgolo and Cholok-Aryk, Kyrgyzstan, on Friday, May 3, 2013.

MOSCOW — Witnesses say a U.S. tanker airplane that crashed Friday in northern Kyrgyzstan caught fire and broke apart in the air, according to local officials.

Emergency response crews were dispatched to the scene, but the fate of the crew was not immediately known.

The Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker, which is used to refuel planes over Afghanistan, took off from Manas International Airport near Bishkek, the capital of the central Asian nation, U.S. and local officials said.

“At about (3:20 p.m. local time), we received information that a U.S. fueling plane disappeared off the radar,” Azamat Mambetov, an official with Kyrgyzstan's Emergency Situations Ministry said by phone from Bishkek.

“Shortly after this news, we got a telephone call from a resident of an area about 40 miles west of Bishkek that a big explosion was heard in the local mountains.”

Ministry officials initially reported that the plane was carrying five crew members, but later revised the figure to three.

A statement from the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing, the U.S. Air Force unit based at Manas, did not specify how many people were aboard. The cause of the crash was under investigation, the statement said.

A local official told a Russian news agency that residents were reporting that the crash site was engulfed in flames.

“According to eyewitnesses' accounts, the plane caught fire and broke in half while still up in the air,” Bolot Shershenaliev, a senior emergency ministry official told the Rossiya 24 television channel. “They even said that they saw parachutes, but no parachutes have been found.”

The United States has a base at the airport in Manas, which it uses for transit operations to and from Afghanistan. The lease expires in 2014 and will not be extended, Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev said last year.

The crash on Friday was the third in less than a week involving aircraft used by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. On Monday, seven civilians were killed when a U.S.-contracted cargo plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Bagram air field, north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. On Saturday, four U.S. airmen were killed when a military turboprop plane crashed in southern Afghanistan.

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