An Iranian airliner en route to neighbouring Armenia caught fire mid-air and crashed into farmland today, killing all 168 people on board in the worst air disaster in Iran in recent years. Witnesses and state media said the Caspian Airlines plane was ablaze before plunging into the ground and exploding near a village north-east of Tehran shortly after taking off from the capital's international airport. Television images showed a vast crater at the disaster site littered with debris of plane parts, shoes and clothes. A relief worker at the site said that all he found were "pieces of flesh and bones." "There is not a single piece which can be identified. There is not a single finger of anybody left," he said, standing next to a body bag. "All people aboard... the crashed plane are dead. The plane had 153 passengers and 15 crew members," said Mohammad Reza Montazer Khorasan, head of the health ministry's disaster management centre. In Yerevan, the deputy head of the Armenian civil aviation organisation, Arsen Pogossian, told a press conference that of the 153 passengers aboard, 147 were Iranian, of whom 31 were of Armenian origin. The remaining six were four Armenians and two Georgians. Iranian officials said 10 members of Iran's junior national judo team were also among those killed. Mr Pogossian said the pilot had attempted an emergency landing after an engine caught fire. "A fire broke out in one engine, and the pilot attempted an emergency landing," Mr Pogossian said, while stressing that his comment was "not an official version" of what had occurred. Witnesses spoke of seeing the plane on fire before it plunged to the ground. "I saw the plane when it was just ... above the ground. Its wheels were out and there was fire blazing from the lower parts," witness Ablolfazl Idaji said, according to the Fars news agency. "It seemed the pilot was trying to land and moments later the plane hit the ground and broke into pieces that were scattered far and wide." Iran's English-language Press TV quoted a witness from the site near the village of Janat Abad in the Qazvin province as saying that "the aircraft all of a sudden fell out of the sky and exploded on impact, where you see the crater." The stench of smoke was still in the air hours after the crash and the police were preventing people, most of them local villagers, from coming close to the crash site, the reporter said. * AFP
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